It’s no secret that college students hop from bar to bar in the Florida Keys for spring break, but one group of students broke with stereotypes when they picked up trash at bars of a different kind: protected sandbars. For the fourth year in a row, students from the University of Florida’s Alpha Zeta fraternity chose to donate time from their spring break to help clean up marine debris from sandbars and shorelines in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The only active Alpha Zeta chapter in the state of Florida, the group is dedicated to scholarship, leadership, integrity, and service — both on and off the University of Florida campus. The 14 Alpha Zeta members who visited the Keys were about as far from campus as they could get without leaving Florida when they worked with sanctuary staff on a service learning project that took place at Sugarloaf Key, Boca Chica Beach, and Woman Key.
“Shoreline cleanups beautify the Keys and help prevent wildlife from becoming entangled in debris or ingesting it,” said Todd Hitchins, who runs the sanctuary’s Team OCEAN cleanups in the Lower Keys. “It dramatically improves the quality of the habitat for many species, both marine and terrestrial.”
Students began their alternative break experience at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, where they learned about the negative impacts that marine debris can have on Keys wildlife such as endangered seas turtles, birds, and dolphins before heading out to three habitat sites located in the Lower Keys.
First on their itinerary was cleaning at Sammy Creek Landing Wildlife and Environmental Area on Sugarloaf Key. The site was designated by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a state Wildlife Environmental Area to protect several endangered native species, and is also a popular launch site for kayaks and paddleboards. On day two, students used kayaks to access the beach and mangrove shoreline extending from Boca Chica Beach to the northwest corner of the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve. The reserve is a sanctuary zone designed to protect natural spawning and nursery habitats that are important for sustaining fish and other marine life. On their final day, they picked up trash at Woman Key, a natural backcountry island beach that is a sanctuary Wildlife Management Area and protected as part of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. The island offers important habitat for nesting sea turtles and numerous species of wading and shore birds.
Among the items collected were shoe soles and flip-flops, plastic bags, plastic and glass bottles, aluminum cans, and small bits of plastic such as soda caps and broken pieces. The group also picked up derelict fishing gear such as trap lines and various types of commercial fishing nets. All told, the group collected and properly disposed of more than 2400 pounds (1.2 Tons) of marine debris from the three public areas.
“It was absolutely inspiring to see the students go after the debris – they were so gung-ho about not leaving any trash behind and it’s clear that they began to see plastic litter in a whole new light,” said LTJG Rosemary Abbitt, a NOAA Corps officer currently stationed at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.