Debris and pollutants making their way into the Atlantic Ocean and Volusia waterways can spell disaster for marine life – and damage our community’s most valuable environmental assets. But public awareness and simple acts of engagement can do much to improve these situations.
For East Volusia, water is the main natural attraction, a mainstay of the community’s quality of life, tourism and overall economy. But as beach litter such as Styrofoam, cigarette butts and especially plastics washes out to sea, it clogs the insides of ocean creatures (including sea turtles) that mistake the garbage for food. Compounding the problem are fishing hooks and lines that entangle animals, including turtles and manatees – and chemicals dumped into waterways, poisoning marine life and destroying habitats that support it.
“Everyone involved with water is impacted,” comments Ponce Inlet fishing charter Captain Billy Rotne. A Florida native, Rotne has more than 25 years of experience fishing east Central Florida waters. He laments the impacts that pollution has caused to inland waterways, especially in Southeast Volusia’s Mosquito Lagoon, which is experiencing a substantial die-off of valuable seagrass. As a marine conservationist, Rotne is passionate about his goal to inform the public and promote restoration efforts. “Everything that happens in the lagoon is a nursery for the ocean,” he stresses.
And for Volusia County, the Mosquito Lagoon generates several hundred million dollars in economic activity each year.
Some progressive public awareness programs and restoration projects have been started by Volusia governments – as well as commercial fishermen and enthusiasts.
“Everything we do has a water quality message to it,” sums up Volusia County Environmental Management Director Ginger Adair.
Volusia County’s Marine Science Center (MSC) in Ponce Inlet is a valuable learning resource and attraction. In the exhibition gallery are impressive displays – many of them real life – of East Volusia’s varied marine life and aquatic ecosystems, including a 5,000-gallon artificial reef habitat aquarium. MSC provides daily presentations, as well as classroom/laboratory programs for a firsthand learning experience about sea life and habitats.
“Our ultimate goal is not only to educate but also to change behaviors,” comments Chad Macfie, MSC manager. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, MSC has educated 1.2 million visitors about East Volusia’s marine ecosystems – and ways they can play a role in maintaining them.
MSC is also a central station for rescue operations of distressed animals from both land and sea. Since its inception, the center’s hospital has rehabilitated 25,000 reptiles (mostly sea turtles) and 19,000 birds, representing more than 200 different species. MSC staff and volunteers see “first hand” the human impacts to marine life, Macfie notes. “A lot of them have ingested plastics, balloons and other marine debris,” he says, adding that plastics almost always are found inside sea turtles when the MSC hospital performs necropsies.
“Many of the birds we see are entangled in (or have ingested) some amount of fishing line,” comments Tracy Dawson, MSC’s Seabird Hospital manager, and sometimes the birds are found hanging from trees.
“If visitors come to MSC, where the hospitals provide this visual impact, it really begins to set in,” Macfie adds. “People want to know why this happened.”
Macfie emphasizes the importance of habitat protection and the food chain connection, beginning with small crustaceans. “This is so important because all these fish start out as larvae and crustaceans are a large part of their food.” The crustaceans rely on seagrass habitats, making them a primary – yet unseen – victim of seagrass destruction in Mosquito Lagoon, largely from chemical and nutrient pollution – septic tanks, fertilizers, fast food wrappers, contaminated stormwater runoff and sewage discharge. “If you look at the food chain, including thousands of organisms – with seagrass being the foundation – it means that everything relies on it…and many of the ones we don’t see (such as crustaceans) are extremely important to our future.”
Despite the problems, Macfie is optimistic about steps being taken. “My thought is anything is better than nothing,” he says. “By taking these steps to eliminate nutrients and chemicals, it certainly is not harmful.”
And with regard to public awareness, Captain Rotne expresses some optimism as well, “the whole culture has changed for the better. Very few people throw trash or fishing line in the water. And if you do, you’re going to get an earful.”