Underwater volunteers provide valuable service

The following article appeared in the July 29, 2017 edition of the Venice Gondolier Sun

Underwater volunteers provide valuable service

By Larry R. Humes
While scores of volunteers donate their time to keeping the Venice community clean and beautiful,
dozens more spend countless hours underwater, scouring the sea floor to rid our bays and shoreline of
marine debris.
For nearly two decades, the Suncoast Reef Rovers have conducted annual clean-ups beneath the Venice
Fishing Pier, along the rocks of the Venice Jetties, and beginning last year, under the Mooring Field in
Roberts Bay.
In the process, they have removed everything from outboard boat motors and concrete park benches to
a crusty 22-caliber revolver.
“I think what these people do for our city is phenomenal,” said Venice Mayor John Holic. “They are a
great bunch of people who go out and have a good time. They are really proud of what they pull out of
the water, and justifiably so. They are absolutely doing the city a wonderful service.
“When they clean the Jetty, the City Pier, and now the Mooring Field, they are cleaning a part of the city
that most of us never see, but is just as important.”
The Reef Rovers organization was formed in February 1997 for the purpose of bringing together sport
divers and promoting local diving opportunities. Committed to coastal stewardship, 27 club members
conducted their first clean-up beneath the fishing pier the following year. Shortly thereafter, they
expanded their efforts to include cleaning the north and south sides of the Venice Jetty.
Last year, the club began coordinating its efforts with Sarasota Bay Watch, another local non-profit
dedicated to improving and maintaining the area’s marine environment. Ronda Ryan, who heads up the
group’s debris projects, said she was amazed at the amount of trash they bring up.
“If you extrapolated what they brought up last year over the last two decades, it represents tons of
stuff. And the interesting thing is that for the amount of debris they pull out, the sea floor is never
completely clean. There is stuff left down there that they can’t get to.”
Ken Lackman, who serves as underwater cleanup coordinator, said: “Aside from the actual time spent
underwater, these projects require a lot of advance planning. We work with the Venice Police, who
secure the waters topside; the folks at Sharkey’s regarding the pier cleanup; the Venice Yacht Club; the
Venice Citizens Police Academy Graduates; Sarasota Bay Watch; and helpful city and county staff.
“To gauge the importance of what we do, one need only look at the amount of debris we bring up.
There’s an awful lot of stuff down there.”
A lot of stuff, indeed. Just last year, for example, the Reef Rovers removed from the area’s sea floors 114
miles of entangling material (i.e. fishing line, rope, nets, wire), more than 250 pounds of trash, 572
pounds of lead (mostly from net weights), 16 crab traps and doors, 29 fishing nets, seven anchors, 15
buoys, and 11 fishing poles. And that is just a portion of what was retrieved.

“You’ve got habitat on those rocks, which are covered with corals and fans, grasses and all kinds of
things that fish need to live and hide in during periods of their development,” said Ryan. “When you
cover those areas with a fishing net, that net is down there just scouring and ripping out the plants.
“Not to mention the fact that the nets are being tossed back and forth, forming such a tangle that they
‘ghost fish.’ Fish and crabs get caught up in the nets with no way to get out. If the Reef Rovers were not
so enthusiastic about their endeavor, the abundance of sea life in those areas would be greatly
“What they are doing is an environmental benefit, but it’s also an economic benefit.”
The Reef Rovers clean beneath the city pier annually and used to do the same for the Jetties. This year,
they were assisted by members of the Green Dive Initiative. Beginning in 2013, however, at the request
of the Venice Police Marine Patrol, they now clean both sides of the Jetty a second time when needed.
“What these folks do is very important to the city. For everyone who utilizes our waters, whether it’s
swimming, boating, or fishing, they go down there and clean up all the stuff that has accumulated over a
year’s time,” said Captain Paul Joyce, marine patrol officer for the City of Venice. “People don’t realize
they have been doing this for nearly 20 years. They do all of this so that folks like you and me can go out
and enjoy ourselves on the water safely.”
Beginning in 2001, in addition to the service they provide beneath the water’s surface, the Reef Rovers
conduct quarterly clean-ups of Service Club Park, from the boardwalk south to the pier.
Last year, Holic approached the group to see if they would consider clearing the unofficial mooring field
in front of the Venice Yacht Club.
“The area had never been cleared before and I’d heard reports there are boats out there moored with
objects like old washing machines and car engines,” he said. “They did a dive there last September, using
the Yacht Club’s parking lot as a temporary site for the junk they hauled up. They were pulling up sunken
boats, dinghies, all kinds of anchors that had broken away from boats.”
Holic added that the club plans to clear the area again this fall. And if the City ever pursues having the
area declared an official mooring area, having the bottom surveyed is a requirement that the Reef
Rovers have already provided.
Ryan pointed out that in addition to helping clean our marine environment, the Reef Rovers also provide
a valuable educational component in our community.
“There are a lot of people who walk along those jetties and on the pier and they’re seeing this debris
come out of the water,” Ryan said. “People may realize there are problems with pollution in our world’s
oceans, but may not be aware that we have debris issues right here at home. It’s part of our
environment, but we can’t see or fathom it.”

Larry Humes writes about local history and can be reached at [email protected]

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