Volunteer Gary Reinmuth meets Greg Vine, Suncoast Reef Rovers:
What do a crusty 22-caliber revolver, a water-logged fishing rod with a live but emaciated little snapper still on the hook, an outboard motor that became detached from its sunken boat and two concrete park benches have in common? Believe it or not, they have all been dragged up over the years from the rocks off Venice Pier and Venice’s North and South Jetties by the Suncoast Reef Rovers, a group that was formed almost two decades ago by six dedicated divers: Greg and Susan Vine, Bill Wilson, Debra Lawrence, Fred Hind and Elaine Brosnan.
What did they see that no one else saw at the time? In the beginning, lots of fish. But then they saw something else. Something more troubling: What some fishermen, the careless ones, had left behind. And it wasn’t pretty. But it was astounding. “Right now,” says Vine, sitting at a picnic table in the shade at North Jetty Park on Casey Key, “when you look out there at the water you say ‘What a wonderful pristine place this is.’ Which it is. But when you are underwater against these rocks (in the jetty) and around the markers you see all the crap that is down there. And our junk becomes very threatening to the life below.” As strange things go, finding a 22-caliber revolver and a concrete bench in the water are definitely out of the ordinary. But they only begin to tell the story of what these dedicated divers have recovered from the sea since the group was founded in 1997 solely for the purpose of gathering to enjoy something they all loved. Those recreational dives soon evolved into something more: ongoing gestures of civic mindedness and coastal stewardship. “In the beginning,” says Vine, “we would just be diving and we’d see trash and pick it up. After awhile we got more active at it and we were asked to take a look at the Venice Pier and we sort of adopted it.” Be careful what you adopt, Vine would say now.
Soon after, the Rovers went to Sarasota County and the Marine Patrol officials to ask for permission to clean up Venice’s North and South Jetties, and before long their yearly cleanup dives were attracting 20 divers (club members and volunteers from local dive shops) and 40 to 50 topside helpers on the shore. Low visibility, shifting tides and scattered fish hooks went with the job but they have persevered. “When we started,” explains Vine, “we easily collected thousands of pounds of stuff on each dive. Primarily cast nets, which are terrible for fish down in the rocks, and lead weights and miles and miles of monofilament fishing line.”
Back then no one bothered to catalog the mess. But last year, Ronda Ryan of Sarasota Bay Watch did. Those hard to stomach totals, says Vine, “can be extrapolated back” to get a fair estimate of the total amount of garbage the Rovers have rescued in our small part of the Gulf of Mexico coastline in the last two decades. In 2016 alone, the Reef Rovers collected the following at the Venice Pier, the North and South Jetties and the Venice Moorings: 114.29 miles of line, rope, nets and wire; 250.2 pounds of trash; 572 pounds of lead weights; 11.4 pounds of miscellaneous tackle; 16 crab traps and doors; 29 fishing nets; 7 anchors, 15 buoys and 11 fishing poles.
For Vine, what began in high school when he and his girlfriend (now wife) decided to take a scuba diving class together (“by the time we were both 17 we each had more than 2,500 dives under our belts”) has grown into an effort that garnered local recognition and cooperation from the Keep Sarasota County Beautiful campaign, the Sarasota Bay Watch group and even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’re almost better known nationally than locally,” Vine says. “Because we do ongoing cleanups. “They (local officials) want us to do more. But we encourage others to do cleanups in Sarasota Bay, for example (the first one was held last year), because we’ve got plenty to clean up here. If we could dive every day we’d be busy every day. It never ends! Particularly at North Jetty. After all this time it still amazes me how much fishing gear and nets and monofilament, not to mention just plain trash, we pull out of the rocks here.
“What really troubles us is the use of cast nets at the jetty, which is an impractical use for catching bait because when you lose your net, the nets stay down there and they continue to trap fish and when that happens it’s not a good a day for the wildlife. ” ….And there’s only one way beer bottles and soda bottles and cans get in the water. It just breaks our heart when we find one, let alone four or five. When you find six Heineken cans in the same spot it’s just not right. It makes you want to say to people ‘pick up your own stuff!’ The ocean is not your dumping ground.”