When he returned, wounded, from serving in Vietnam, doctors told Don Voss he wouldn't walk again. But Voss, now a 64-year-old ship captain, turned to swimming as therapy. With more than 14,000 scuba dives under his belt, he walks just fine, thanks. He also heads an organization that has collected more than 300,000 pounds of debris from the inlets along Florida's central eastern coast. This work has earned Voss an Ocean Hero award from the ocean conservation group Oceana.
After an early retirement from instructing, Voss began filming debris in the Sebastian Inlet State Park. What he witnessed inspired him to begin removing the debris and, eventually, he found it impossible to dive without doing so. In 2009, Voss and others formed Marine Cleanup Initiative, Inc. as a non-profit whose mission is to work with volunteers to collect debris such as fishing line, nets, lures, anchors, litter and building material that covers much of the inlets along the coast.
Voss now trains and organizes volunteers to collect garbage in four inlets and four counties, along more than 90 miles of the Indian River Lagoon Estuary. This area is unique in that it ends up collecting not only the shore-based litter and cast-off gear of irresponsible fishermen, but also much of the wreckage that hurricanes leave behind.
"The inlets are where people like to fish, so we see a lot of fish line, nets and lead weights there. We lost 200 boats after the 2004 hurricane. Where do you think those end up?" he asks.
But because the inlets have been home to military tactical operations and were frequented by drug runners, they've been off limits to divers, so Voss has had some work to do in order to gain the favor of local government officials.
"In a town of Navy Seals and underwater demolition teams, current and former, it is hard to impress people with credentials," he says. And gaining financial support is always a difficult task. But, he says, "I have somehow touched a nerve that has brought these people to the table. Really, I'm just a Pied Piper.
He also sings the praises of the volunteers that form his armies of debris collectors. "I could not do any of this without the dedicated work of our volunteers who literally risk life and limb, using their own equipment and operating at their own expense to make this all happen. We throw them some pizza and beer and t-shirts and they keep coming back," he says.
"About a third of what we pull in is plastic. Another third is glass bottles and cans," he says. I noted that the dangers that decomposing plastic can pose to marine life have been documented, but isn't there a point where some debris becomes habitat and is therefore left where it is?
"We have a counter group down here who says that more harm than good is done when you remove stuff," Voss concedes, but affirms his belief that debris should be removed in all but the most extreme cases. "Some nets we work on for weeks before we finally get them free," he says. "We could just dredge the area and get things up quickly, but we remove debris by hand."
As for things like the lead weights attached to nets and fishing line, he says their presence, combined with the batteries among the debris and fertilizer run-off from the sugar plantations that overflows into the oceans via Lake Okeechobee run-off, are throwing off the normal water chemistry.
"Chemical reactions change oxygenation levels, and the chemical make-up of the water," Voss says. "This kills sea grass, where tiny fish hide from predators" and it wipes out food for clams and oysters.
Voss adds that the benefits of his work are becoming clear. Parts of the inlets that were once covered in debris are now nearly clear of it, and though the fact that the areas have not been scuba spots in the past means that fish are not fearful and come close to the divers. In some areas, the long-dead oyster fisheries may soon rebound.
Oceana also recognized the efforts of James Hemphill, a 15-year-old from Virginia Beach who leads Project Green Teens, an environmental conservation organization developed and managed by students. He is also heading a campaign to stop the use of plastic bags in Virginia Beach and has a seat on the steering committee for the City of Virginia Beach Sustainability Plan. He works mainly on water quality issues and the removal of marine debris.
Divided by generation, Voss and Hemphill are bound by a common cause: They speak for the seas.
—Mary Catherine O'Connor