By Katy Huddlestun
South Florida has seen a boom in beach cleanups, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a generally safe way to be outside, around people, while doing something good.
It may also be due to more people seeking outdoor activities because indoor life has changed so dramatically during the pandemic. For me, beach cleanups started as recreational walks along some of Miami’s less traveled beaches.
But they quickly turned into a sometimes-obsessive need to rid the beach of all the trash. Sometimes the magnitude of the litter would overwhelm me.
These cleanups are increasingly taking place as organized events by non-profit organizations as well as individuals and smaller pop-up group efforts. With more people exposing themselves to the trash-covered truth of the marine pollution situation, they are also becoming educated about pollution and other water quality issues facing us.
At the height of covid lockdown, many people wondered why beach cleanups were still going on. “The beaches have been closed for a month – there won’t be any trash!” said an internet commenter.
The fact is, most of the trash found on the beach washes ashore from the ocean. For a city so intimately connected to the water, we should know more about what is in ours.
With the recent devastating fish kill in Biscayne Bay, South Florida is suddenly paying attention to the bay’s water quality like never before. This problem is requiring us to look beyond the visible harms to water quality, and focus on those not so easily seen.
The problem is that the bay is being infested with fertilizers, nutrients, oil, toxic chemicals, microplastics and animal and human waste. Record high water temperatures and rapidly decreasing areas of seagrass severely restricted oxygen in the water. That combination kills marine ecosystems and marine life of all sorts.
We seem to be unwilling to address the harm that climate change will have on our coastlines and waterways. The warming climate will continue to stress South Florida’s sewer and septic systems as sea level rises.
But some common-sense solutions can be implemented now and relatively cheaply.
Filters over storm drain outflows, for example, would prevent much of the street pollution from being washed out to sea with each heavy rain.
At this point, anything other than bold action by our elected, business, and community leaders to protect Biscayne Bay and all of South Florida’s precious water sources is tantamount to sacrificing a core characteristic of our state.
Social change takes place in small bursts, prompted by something like the massive die off of Biscayne Bay.
I love calling Miami home, but we’re not here for the convenient commute or the affordable housing. We take pride in living in a tropical paradise where others vacation.
But will they still come with the water smelling like death the way it does right now, or when toxic algae blooms make their way to Miami? What do we have left when no one wants to visit where we live anymore? Will you stay after our tropical paradise is lost?
Katy Huddlestun, an attorney, is a Miami native and advocate for social- and environmental-justice causes. She cleans up beaches along Miami’s coastlines to raise awareness about the harmful effects of the plastic pollution crisis.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.