Chapters & Centers

CLI Student Leads Marine Debris Cleanup

by Emma Wilkinson, CLI student 2020-2021.

The estuary formed by the Guana, Tolomato, and Matanzas Rivers is my backyard, my classroom, and my favorite place in nature. Because St. Johns County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida, these rivers see a lot of recreational use. Matanzas Riverkeeper aims to engage the public in protecting the health of this watershed, and their Litter Gitter program takes volunteers onto the river with the goal of collecting as much marine debris as will fit in the boat. The boat - captained by Adam Morley - gives members of the community an opportunity to make a difference in their local environment while learning about the impact that marine debris has on the creatures that call the river their home.

The Conservation Leadership Initiative mentorship with St. Johns County Audubon Society (SJCAS) provided me the opportunity to organize a Litter Gitter clean-up for my fellow students at Flagler College. SJCAS regularly takes members out on the Litter Gitter, but these trips rarely aligned with the busy schedules of college students. Partnering with the chapter, I organized a clean-up more accessible to students like myself. Connecting with environmentally conscious peers creates a sense of community and responsibility for our local environment that we can take on together. There are many students interested in environmental stewardship who aren’t aware of organizations like Audubon, so partnering with local chapters is a great way to introduce young people to the work that Audubon does.

The day of the clean-up was a warm and sunny Saturday morning with a high tide. Five student volunteers showed up ready to get their feet wet, literally, by wading into mangrove stands and small islands to retrieve marine debris. As we navigated to the site, the river looked free of marine debris. Matanzas Riverkeeper has cleaned up the parts of the river that were the most in need, and have been expanding their reach to areas further away from their base at Genung’s Fish Camp.

However, we quickly learned that marine debris is a deceiving form of litter. From a distance, a stand of mangroves looked free of trash, but upon closer inspection, tatters of plastic and fishing lines tangled among the trees. The team of volunteers filled the Litter Gitter with bags of discarded rope, wood, fishing line, a variety of plastic debris, and even an abandoned fishing boat—the biggest piece of debris that the Litter Gitter has ever recovered from the river. One highlight of the trip was rescuing a baby Great Horned Owl that had left its nest built high on a bridge over the river and ended up floating downstream. It was amazing to see this bird up close and help send it to a local wildlife rehabilitation center.

The excitement young people feel by making a difference, whether it is through cleaning up marine debris or rescuing wildlife, shows how this kind of conservation work sticks with them. By working with young conservationists, Audubon not only invests in the health of our ecosystems, but also nurtures the organizational skills of to-be conservation leaders. Organizing this trip helped me make connections with local conservation groups. Student-led trips like this one inspire young people to take the initiative to get involved.

At the end of the day, several of my peers were interested in the opportunities that Audubon offers, whether it be through Conservation Leadership Initiative, shorebird stewarding, or just recreational bird walks. The future of the environment depends on young conservationists and getting hands-on with nature gives young people a real sense of the natural resources they want to conserve.

To learn more about the Conservation Leadership Initiative, click here. 

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