Record-Breaking Trash Derby Removes Marine Debris in the Florida Keys

Photo credit: Tiffany Duong

The second annual I.CARE Trash Derby, held on May 2-5 and sponsored by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation in support of Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys, was a record-breaking event and one of the largest marine debris cleanups ever held in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  

I.CARE (Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education) is a local organization dedicated to restoring the reefs of Islamorada and incorporate local businesses, residents, and visitors in community-based coral reef restoration in the Florida Keys.  

Photo credit: Tiffany Duong

Over two days, over 600 volunteers joined forces in the sea and on the shore and collected almost 16,000 pounds of marine debris. There were attendees both from the local community, as well as from as far away as Germany! 

The initial idea for the Trash Derby came from Cortney Benson, Marine Debris Removal Stewardship Coordinator at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, who joined the Foundation’s team after five years of working in the conservation community in the Florida Keys and participating in Goal: Clean Seas dives. Amanda Hudon, the Marine Conservation Coordinator for Key Dives, made this idea a reality and became the Trash Derby Coordinator since its inaugural event in 2023.  

“I’m in love with the idea of tackling marine debris…it’s really great to see the excitement that people have when they come up from a dive like that, knowing that they did good and gave back to the reef,” said Benson.  

Photo credit: Tiffany Duong

Marine debris is a widespread problem that can impact marine life, their habitat, and coastal communities. Marine debris can threaten human health and safety; reduce the quality of life in coastal areas; degrade habitats; cause economic loss to tourism, fisheries, and maritime activities; and injure and kill marine life due to entanglement or ingestion.  

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is home to the only coral barrier reef in the continental United States. Removing marine debris in the Florida Keys literally lifts a weight off the reef, which faces compounding pressures from threats including record-high water temperatures from recent marine heat waves, ocean acidification, and disease. These coral reefs are a backdrop for the sanctuary’s world class diving, fishing, and other recreational activities that draw millions of visitors and are an economic engine for the state’s blue economy, generating more than $4.4 billion annually. 

To celebrate a successful event, on the last day of the Trash Derby a free family-friendly festival was held at Founder’s Park in Islamorada, Florida, which included an award ceremony, music, food, activities, and a showcase of local organizations working to improve the reefs of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  

Photo credit: Tiffany Duong

Award winners were calculated by the amount of marine debris removed per person (total weight of debris removed divided by the number of people on their team). In the dive operators’ category, Quiescence Diving Services took first place, followed by Pirate’s Cove Watersports and Captain’s Corner Dive Center in second and third place respectively. Captain’s Corner and Key Dives also received an honorable mention for more than 1,000 pounds of marine debris removed. 

In the private boat division, two-time champions “Waste-ing Time” (made up of MOTE Marine Laboratory employees) took first place, and Blue Dog Charters and Water Warrior Alliance came in second and third place.  

In the land/shoreline division, Derke Snodgrass won first place (with an amazing 2,219.10 pounds of debris removed!), followed by “Kickin it in the Keys” and “Bilge Buddies”. Finally, for the most monofilament fishing line removed, and also defending their two-time title, Conch Republic Divers won with an impressive 24 pounds of fishing line removed. 

All chartered dives were free to participating certified divers, and all activities were permitted by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  

Photo credit: Tiffany Duong

Addressing harmful marine debris is a key pillar of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s mission to conserve special places and support a healthy ocean and coasts. As federally designated areas of national significance, national marine sanctuaries are critical places to focus efforts to protect and restore our ocean. Through programs like Goal: Clean Seas Florida Keys, the Foundation works with NOAA and other partners across the National Marine Sanctuary System to coordinate specialized marine debris removal activities and engage and empower local communities and Tribal Nations in stewardship activities that contribute to the success of debris removal, long-term ecosystem restoration efforts, and marine debris awareness and prevention through education and outreach.  

Want to participate in Goal: Clean Seas marine debris removal dives in the Florida Keys? Find a participating Blue Star dive operator and book your dive today! 

Photo credit: Tiffany Duong