The First Ever Large-Scale Mangrove Cleanup in the U.S. Virgin Islands Nets Thousands of Pounds of Debris

Posted Tue, 05/15/2018 - 11:00

By: Kristin Wilson Grimes, Ph.D., Guest Blogger and Research Assistant Professor of Watershed Ecology at the University of the Virgin Islands; and Elisa Bryan-Lacatena, Guest Blogger and Communications Specialist at the Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research

On April 21, 2018, a group of 126 volunteers removed more than 3,000 pounds of marine debris in the “Great Mangrove Cleanup,” the first large-scale community cleanup in the St. Thomas East End Reserves (STEER), a marine protected area on the east end of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).

These mangrove shorelines are difficult to get to, which makes them especially difficult to clean, and after the twin Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the territory last September, these coastlines are chock-full of marine debris. The vast majority of debris we gathered came from land-based sources (90-95% of items) and most of the items were plastic (65-70%). These patterns are consistent with those observed globally. The single item we collected the most of were plastic beverage bottles– 1,765 of them! For such a small area of coastline, that’s a lot, and it tells us that if we want to reduce marine debris in the USVI, we should be thinking about what we are drinking out of, where we are disposing of it, and where it might end up.

The USVI doesn’t have widespread recycling programs, so materials were reused whenever possible; items from the Cleanup that could be reused included fenders, buoys, and pieces of wood. Metal was recycled for scrap, and hard plastics (like all those plastic bottles) were recycled through the Virgin Islands Department of Planning & Natural Resources (DPNR) Division of Coastal Zone Management’s recycling partnership with Terracycle, run by DPNR Education and Outreach Coordinator, Kristina Edwards.

Participating in the Cleanup was a team from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), including members of the Center for Marine & Environmental Studies (CMES), Masters of Marine and Environmental Studies (MMES) students, and UVI undergraduates. Nearly 50 individuals from All Hands and Hearts, a volunteer organization assisting in hurricane recovery in the territory, also participated in the cleanup, as did members of the Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-EPSCoR), the Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service (VIMAS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), local agencies (DPNR Division of Coastal Zone Management, DPNR Division of Environmental Enforcement, and the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority), and other local non-profits (USVI Marine Rebuild Fund, Perfect Heart, Blue Flag, Camp Umoja, and the Environmental Association of St. Thomas, among others).

The Cleanup was supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program, in partnership with VI-EPSCoR, VIMAS, UVI CMES, DPNR Division of Coastal Zone Management, USVI Marine Rebuild Fund, and three local businesses (Virgin Islands Ecotours, Pizza Pi, and Custom Builders).

“It was only by combining our efforts that we were able to achieve such a big impact. It shows what we can accomplish when we work together. For as much as we were able to remove, there’s a lot more to go,” said Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service St. Thomas/St. John Coordinator, Mr. Howard Forbes, Jr. VIMAS is University of Puerto Rico Sea Grant’s extension arm in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Partners hope to make the Great Mangrove Cleanup an annual event.

The top 10 items collected at The Great Mangrove Clean-Up were: Other weird finds included:
  • 1,765 plastic beverage containers
  • 1,000 misc. plastic pieces 
  • 585 foam pieces
  • 417 aluminum beverage cans
  • 359 other plastic bottles
  • 328 plastic bags
  • 307 glass bottles
  • 298 pieces of rope
  • 265 plastic cups
  • 201 plastic food containers 
  • 55 shoes
  • 1 pool noodle
  • 2 fire extinguishers
  • 11 snorkels
  • 32 balls