All trash, no treasures - Diver cleanup at Pier 60 yields a large haul of marine debris

CLEARWATER BEACH — For the first time in the city's recorded history, an underwater cleanup of Pier 60 was conducted Saturday, netting a dumpster load of debris that had been twisted and intertwined among the pilings.
City marine facility operator and Harbor Marina dockmaster Thomas “T.J.” Murphy confirmed, “There's no record that a cleanup was ever done before.”
Murphy, who is also a marine biologist, said his concern about what lies underneath the pier heightened after slow-moving Tropical Storm Debby pounded the area in June 2012. Crab traps broke loose, showing up in all the wrong places, and debris littered the beach.
“Storms and just normal tides cause sand to shift, causing debris to appear, get buried and then reappear,” he said.
Crab traps in the wrong places can become “killing machines,” Murphy said.
“When a stone crab or octopus gets lodged in the trap, anything that swims or crawls past the trap opening (within reach of claws or tentacles) gets dragged into the trap, killed and eaten,” he said. That's not necessarily good for the ecological footprint.
Murphy said another “pier nightmare” is fishing lines. “A fisherman's line gets snagged. The line is cut or breaks and gets left behind,” swept away by the currents or twisted around the pilings, endangering marine life.
Debris and snagged lines create havoc underneath the pier, he said. Marine life can become entangled and die or will stay clear of potential danger. When that happens, fishing is hindered.
“We want the pier to be a great place to fish; a place where locals and tourists catch fish and go back with the great fish stories,” he said.
Even though a dumpster-load of debris was collected Saturday, Murphy said water visibility that was limited to six feet hampered the effort.
“One diver told me that this was just the 'tip of the iceberg,' suspecting that more debris lies beneath,” said Murphy, who retired to the Central American country of Panama for seven years before accepting employment with the city three years ago.
Murphy said he intends to promote the underwater pier cleanup to city officials on a biannual or, at minimum, on an annual basis.
Sean Patterson, from Reef Monitoring Inc. of Clearwater, said 20 volunteer divers scoured the water beneath the pier, while a half-dozen representatives of the nonprofit group assisted divers, and distributed information and educated inquiring beach-goers from a temporary beachside station.
Monica Lara, assistant professor of marine biology at St. Petersburg College who also was there Saturday to advise and support three of her students who were volunteer divers, said she was stunned by what was found underwater slightly west of the pier.
“There is a healthy little reef that has formed on a debris pile” that since has been designated as an artificial reef, she said. “There is a lot of coral growth on the artificial reef. It was surprising to find growth in such turbid water and in a sandy environment.”
Divers found the reef entangled with a large amount of monofilament fishing lines, which they removed.
“Tough little coral,” Lara exclaimed.
Before debris was tossed into the dumpster, volunteers sorted through the rubble for signs of marine life. Small crabs, sea stars, worms, urchins and mantis shrimp were rescued and returned to the Gulf of Mexico.
Overall, those involved in the cleanup collected nets, fishing line, ghost traps and fishing tackle including hooks, sinkers and lures. Scaffolding remains, bottles, beverage cans, plastic fragments and cups, pieces of clothing, ropes, sandals, sneakers, pipes, beach chairs, sunglasses and a cell phone also were hauled out of the water.
Clearwater Police and Fire Rescue teams were stationed on land and in rescue vessels to assist, monitor efforts, and keep fisherman and boaters a safe distance from divers and others involved in the cleanup.
The pier was closed to anglers during the morning effort, which was co-sponsored by Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offers these tips for anglers to help protect marine life:
- Properly dispose of monofilament line. Any unwanted line should be stored safely and securely until it can be placed in a recycling bin.
- Don't leave fishing line unattended, as pelicans may be tempted to steal bait.
- Avoid casting near trees, utility lines and other areas where line may get caught.
- Check tackle frequently for frayed line that may break easily.
- Don't feed marine wildlife because it encourages the animals to approach fishing boats, piers and anglers. If available, use fish-scrap repositories. If those aren't available, discard fish scraps in a garbage can or at home.
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