MIAMI – Miami native Andrew Otazo is a mission — to clean up all the trash and marine debris strangling our mangrove forests.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, it doesn’t matter if you’re here in Virginia Key or in Matheson Hammock, if there’s a mangrove forest it’s full of trash,” the 34-year-old eco-activist says.
Mangroves play an essential role in our ecosystem. They protect our coastlines from storm surge and sea-level rise. They absorb carbon and filter nutrients and toxins, and they provide a nursery for baby fish and other marine life.
But our mangroves are under threat. Many have been removed by coastal development, and those that are left are often filled with litter.
Otazo’s labor of love began four years ago when he went for a hike at Bear Cut Preserve to find nature — only to find it was covered in trash.
“I was so upset by the time I left the preserve that I thought, ‘Alright, I’m going to start doing something about this,’” Otazo says.
And he has.
Since December 2017, Otazo has been scouring South Florida mangroves from Bird Key down to the West Point Preserve.
He’s collected almost 14,000 pounds of trash so far.
“I’m not going to stop until it’s all done,” he says.
On this hot, muggy, early Saturday morning, Otazo has reenforcements — a group of 30 volunteers organized by the Miami Freedom Project, which has been tracking Otazo’s work and wanted to help.
“It’s one person. He’s making such a big impact, if we all just did a little bit more we can all really see a change that we want to see happen,” says Ana Sofia Pelaez, the Miami Freedom Project’s executive director.
On this day, the target was Virginia Key’s north point mangroves, an area Otazo has cleaned many times before.
“When I first showed up here it was a landfill,” he says. “You couldn’t step anywhere without stepping on a piece of trash.”
Despite all his efforts, there’s still trash everywhere.
It is a Sisyphean task. The more trash he picks up, the more he inevitably finds the next time he comes back.
“It has gotten worse, and the reason why is there is no policy solution,” Otazo says. “It’s just individuals and organizations going out on a volunteer basis and cleaning up the shoreline, which isn’t going to solve the problem.”
More than 70% of the trash that gets entangled here comes from the land, most of it litter discarded by people who just don’t seem to get it or just don’t care.
“Everything you do has an impact,” Otazo says. “That plastic bottle you decided to throw on the street, it’s not going to stay there. It’s going to wind up here where I’m going to find it.”
Otazo says it’s time city and county leaders step up and try to mitigate the enormous amount of litter polluting our waterways, islands and mangroves.
“Pressure your policymakers to do something about this,” he says. “Make this an issue.”
In the meantime, there is much work to be done. And after about three hours the group comes back together to weigh the day’s haul.
The final total is 355 pounds.
That brings Otazo’s grand total to 14,130 pounds of trash — all of it collected from our mangroves.
And yet it’s just a small dent. The problem persists.
“I can’t stop,” Otazo says. “I committed, and when I commit to something, I don’t care about anything. I’ll come out rain or shine. I’ll keep working.”