University of Florida spring breakers make a splash against marine debris in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

By Halle Marchese

March 2019

Most college students leave the beach with a few good pictures and a tan. However, since 2012, students with the University of Florida's Alpha Zeta Honors Fraternity have left Florida Keys beaches with as many pieces of trash as they can pick up. Through a partnership with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, UF Alpha Zeta students forego a traditional spring break and instead spend a week cleaning up the area's protected shorelines.

university of florida students and bags of trash
The UF Alpha Zeta team strikes a Gator pose at Boca Chica Beach on the edge of Naval Air Station Key West and adjacent to the sanctuary’s Western Sambo Ecological Reserve. Beachgoers frequently collect debris at Boca Chica, but small plastics are easy to miss. Photo: Nicole Uibel/NOAA

"On the first day, I was covered in mud – completely covered – and it was my favorite part," says Jessica Manion, a UF Alpha Zeta junior who worked with the sanctuary to plan the fraternity's itinerary. "I loved getting down and dirty, and it's a lot of fun to be out in the field. It was super rewarding to see the huge difference we made."

The week typically begins at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center to discuss the issue of marine debris and the impact it can have on the area's highly-diverse and economically-valuable marine ecosystems. Students learn about ongoing research and new ecological issues in the Keys.

student on a shoreline holding a bucket
UF junior Jessica Manion holds a bucket of marine debris, mostly plastic, at Sugarloaf Key during the group's first cleanup. Photo: Nicole Uibel/NOAA

"People always ask why I go on the same spring break trip over and over again," says Savannah Stura, a UF Alpha Zeta senior who is returning to the sanctuary for the third year in a row. "I never get bored. It's interesting how you can see these places change over time and the grave impact that marine debris can have."

This year, students focused efforts on the shorelines of Sugarloaf Key, Coupon Bight, and Boca Chica Key, removing 1500 pounds of debris.

"It's really rewarding to know that you're making a dent," says Stephanie Hricik, a UF Alpha Zeta senior. "You know that there's so much more trash out there, but you made a difference by helping out."

Damage from Hurricane Irma has brought lumber, roofing material, and other large pieces of structural debris to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the Alpha Zeta team works to remove these items. They also focus on microplastics, which are less than five millimeters long and can be mistaken for food by birds and fish.

student holding a pile of rope
UF senior Savannah Stura holds rope found on the Sugarloaf Key shoreline. Rope can entangle marine life and is especially important to remove. Photo: Nicole Uibel/NOAA

In addition to beach cleanups, students learn how to engage their communities in conservation and reduce their plastic use at home. Because Alpha Zeta is an academic fraternity for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students, many are already ecologically conscious. However, the amount of marine debris on the Keys’ protected shorelines can still be a shock.

"I think it's really about being here and getting a sense of ownership," says Nicole Uibel, the program coordinator and an education, outreach, and communication specialist at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "They're able to share their experience here with their friends and families, and it really amplifies our message. The more we can share these things at home, hopefully, the less trash we'll have on our beaches."

Students also learn about potential career paths and are given opportunities to interact with experts in the area’s ecology. This year, students toured the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key and kayaked through mangrove canals on Sugarloaf Key.

students walking at national key deer refuge
Students toured the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key with Mark Knowles, manager of the Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve. Photo: Nicole Uibel/NOAA

"I've always loved the ocean, but I never knew how I could turn that into a job," says Stura. "Working with the sanctuary for three years has shown me how you can work with marine ecosystems as a lifelong career."

"It means so much more because I've been coming here every year for three years," says UF Alpha Zeta senior Kristen Doyle. "Key West is almost a second home to me because I like to think that a little part of it is mine now, and I know that I'm making a difference in an area that matters."

Halle Marchese is a University of Florida Alpha Zeta junior and a science writer intern at the Florida Museum of Natural History on UF’s campus.