Holiday weekend highlights trash trouble on Miami islands

Access to popular areas of Biscayne Bay may be limited if people can't get the trash situation under control. Louis Aguirre explores in the latest installment of "Don't Trash Our Treasure."

MIAMI – It’s bright and early on Memorial Day, one of the busiest boating days of the year, and Biscayne Bay is getting packed.

Not just with water enthusiasts, but with the litter they leave behind.

“There’s lots of people coming out here. But the island is so small and it can’t sustain the amount of trash that people are bringing,” says Dara Schoenwald.

Schoenwald and her husband Dave Doebler co-founded For six years they have been documenting this growing crisis on the bay’s spoil islands, a frequent haunt for boaters and jet skiers and a magnet for garbage.

By 10 a.m. on Memorial Day, Willis Island at the mouth of the Miami Marine Stadium basin is already trashed. Trash cans are overflowing and forming piles of garbage destined to wind up in the bay.

“It’s just chaos going on out here. There’s no organization,” Doebler says. “We need to activate these islands in such a way that enables us to manage this whole problem.”

[ALSO SEE: Miami Marine Stadium basin threatened by dangerous boaters, proposed ramp]

The situation at nearby Pace Picnic Island is even worse. It’s bigger and attracts even more boaters — and a lot more debris.

The island’s 15 garbage cans were exploding with trash after a long holiday weekend.

“In another two hours the tide is going to go up another foot, two feet and all that trash is going to be underwater,” Doebler says.

How often does the island look this trashed?

“Every day,” says jet ski operator Catherine Fraser.

Both Willis Island and Pace Picnic Island have been deeded to the City of Miami by the state and are managed the city’s parks and rec department. But, surprisingly, the garbage cans on the island are only emptied once a week by a contracted service company that only visits the island on Tuesdays. By Wednesday the trash cans are already full and there won’t another pick-up for a week.

“People come here every day,” boater Wilson Marreira says. “They’re supposed to clean here every day. It’s crazy.”

It might sound crazy. But the signs say otherwise, clearly stating that visitors must pack out all their trash, leftover food and litter.

Many don’t.

“No one’s going to read a little sign,” Doebler says. “They come out here to enjoy Biscayne Bay and then they see trash cans all around. What do you want people to do? You put out a trash can, they’re going to use the trash can.”

[ALSO SEE: Artist hopes her work of trash inspires us to stop using plastic]

The City of Miami says addressing this problem is a top priority and is collaborating with the county and its new Chief Bay Officer, Irela Bague, to tackle the issue. Short term, the city is planning to soon add another trash pickup day on the islands. But the load so overwhelming, Doebler feels it still won’t be enough.

“What we really should be doing is focusing on a pack it out strategy,” he says, “where people bring all this stuff out on their boats, pack it back in, and dispose of it when you’re on land.”

But will it work?

He tries to engage some of the people on the island to help pick up the trash before the tide comes in and sweeps it up into the bay. It’s a test. Will the people comply if the trash cans are removed and will then must take their trash home with them?

Some do.

“I think I would do it.” Fraser says, “I would do it.”

But the concern is that too many won’t, and it will just leave their mess for someone else to pick up.

“The easiest thing is to pack it out,” Schoenwald says. “We shouldn’t be relying on volunteers to clean up after people who enjoy the islands. It should be a shared responsibility amongst people who are coming and bringing the trash in the first place.”

Bague says “the boating community must take responsibility and treat Biscayne Bay and the spoil islands the same as they would their backyard.”

What’s more, if the short-term fix doesn’t work, and the trashing of the islands continues, both the city and the county are seriously considering limiting the use of the islands to only passive recreation like kayaking, paddling and swimming — banning all motor boaters and jet skiers from using the islands.

The choice is all of ours to make.

To get more info about local volunteer cleanup events, click here.

And let us know what you think. Click here to send us your story ideas for “Don’t Trash Our Treasure” or to share a comment or question with Louis Aguirre.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.