This Earth Day marks one year since Local 10 News launched its “Don’t Trash Our Treasure” series, and throughout this journey, we’ve met some pretty remarkable South Floridians doing their part to protect our precious backyard.
We’ve featured many inspiring stories, but there were three individuals who really stood out, thinking outside the box and igniting their own initiatives to help restore balance to our natural world.
“When I first showed up here, it was a landfill, you couldn’t step anywhere without stepping on a piece of trash,” eco-activist Andrew Otazo said.
Fully committed with unwavering resolve, it’s no wonder Otazo is one of our most treasured citizens.
This 35-year-old from Key Biscayne is on a mission to help keep our coastal habitats pollution free.
“It has gotten worse, and the reason why is there is no policy solution,” he said. “It’s just individuals and organizations going out on a volunteer basis and cleaning up the shoreline, and that’s not going to solve the problem.”
We first met Otazo last June on Virginia Key when he and 30 volunteers joined forces to clear all debris littering the North Point mangroves.
This was just the latest in an almost weekly series of cleanups for Otazo, who since 2017 has been single handedly picking up other people’s trash strangling South Florida’s backyard.
Local 10 News caught up with Otazo at Virginia Key, the same spot where we picked up 355 pounds of trash on a hot summer day. Sadly, not much has changed, as the mangroves are still choked with litter.
“It doesn’t remotely surprise me again. Like, I’ll clean up a stretch of coastline. I’ll come back a week later (and) it’s full of trash again,” Otazo said.
In fact, in the past five years, Otazo’s picked up almost 10 tons of trash, 19,105 pounds to be exact.
In January, he even had his kayak stolen when cleaning up one of the Spoil Islands of Biscayne Bay.
“Then it started to rain,” Otazo said. “It was cold. I was wet. I was tired.”
The story went viral and someone gifted him a new kayak, but through all the trials and tribulations and the unending flow of litter, Otazo is more determined than ever.
“How long are you going to keep this up?” Local 10 News reporter Louis Aguirre asked.
“The rest of my life until I physically can’t anymore,” Otazo said. “And now I’m going to tell other people to do it.”
Our next most treasured citizen is Jonah Basi, a 17-year-old from Wilton Manors and founder of MangroLife.
“I want to see huge, green mangroves all along the seawalls that I know are contributing to that cleaner water,” Basi said.
The St. Thomas Aquinas graduating senior aims to reduce pollution in our waters by removing trash and restoring mangroves along the shorelines.
“They’re probably our most important plant life,” Basi said.
A habitat for marine species and birds, mangroves are a natural filter, absorbing pollutants, and are nature’s greatest defense against storm surge and sea level rise.
“Mangroves do so many things,” Basi said.
When we first met Basi last June, he and his MangroLife crew planted 28 red mangrove saplings on the banks of Coontie Hatchee Park in Fort Lauderdale.
Grown from propagules that he found while doing cleanups around his neighborhood, growing them in fish tanks and pots in his backyard, then re-planting them where they’re needed most.
We caught up with Basi at Richardson Park in Wilton Manors -- the site of his first mangrove restoration project he launched last Earth Day.
“This is long-term success. This is a tree that’s been growing for over a year,” Basi told Aguirre as he showed off his tallest tree. “And at this height, you know that nothing can really take this thing down anymore.”
So far, Basi has replanted 150 mangroves on public lands around Broward, and though he’s off to Florida State University in the fall, he says South Florida and this mission will always be a part of his life.
“This park is my home. All of our other planting locations are part of my home. And if home is where the heart is, my heart is with every mangrove I planted,” he said.
Our third most treasured citizen is Tico Aran, 36, founder of Watershed Action Lab, launching an initiative to restore the lost oysters of Biscayne Bay.
Aran, who is from Coral Gables, hopes to heal our watershed through citizen science and community action.
“When people hear that Biscayne Bay is dying, it seems like too big of a problem and it’s someone else’s job to take care of, and it’s just too big so how can we kind of ask ourselves, ‘What can we do?’” he said.
What Aran did was turn to nature, which always provides the most perfect solution.
Healthy colonies of oysters have long helped the bay filter out deadly nutrients from pollutants, and though we humans have decimated the oysters that once thrived here, what if we brought them back?
“If we get 25 million adult oysters in the water -- we’re talking about a $4 billion dollar waste water treatment plant. One point twenty five billion gallons of water a day can be filtered,” Aran said.
That’s how Aran’s Watershed Action Lab was born, engaging residents to create lines from recycled shells that will serve as a nursery to oyster larvae to repopulate the bay’s lost colonies.
“So kind of as the tide comes up and down, all of a sudden all these sort of areas are available for the oysters to take on and colonize,” Aran said.
Aran’s been busy, not only creating the 3,000 lines he’ll need for his experiment, but identifying where in the bay there are still living oysters.
We met up with him at East Greynold’s Park.
“If we can identify where these healthy oyster populations are, then we can come in and support them with different interventions,” he said.
With an easy to use app, Aran is encouraging all South Floridians to get involved to help him locate where in the bay there are still living oysters.
It’s part of a bigger mission to engage all of us in this most important fight to protect and restore our most precious asset.
“Do you feel like you’re saving Biscayne Bay?” Aguirre asked Aran.
“I’m damn well trying,” he said.
Aran is most treasured indeed, but then again, so are all of the eco heroes we’ve met this past year, including Dave and Dara Doebler from Volunteer Cleanup, along with Theo Quenee, MJ Algarra, Sophie Ringle, Airina Zhrirkova, Jay And Caiti Waks and Manny Rionda – all of who are doing their part to save our planet.
You too can do your part, such as by joining a cleanup or downloading the app that helps Aran find oysters.
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