357 pounds of junk hauled off coral reefs

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Like many mysteries of the sea, the source of a pair of dentures found on a coral reef off Fort Lauderdale may remain forever unknown.

But the origin of a lot of the junk picked off South Florida reefs by volunteers in July is more obvious, with much of it made up of fishing lines and other gear, beer cans and other litter.

A reef cleanup last month by seven volunteer dive boats in Broward, Miami -Dade and Palm Beach counties gathered 357 pounds of debris. Among the most common items were fishing lines, ropes, beer cans and beverage bottles. Others included diver weight belts, sunglasses, sandals, golf balls, plastic grocery bags, a door knob and a lawn chair.

The worst items were the fishing lines and plastic bags, said Karen Bohnsack, who supervises the marine debris program for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. It organized the cleanups along with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Palm Beach County Reef Rescue.

"Anything that would entangle an organism or that something might mistake for food" is a problem, she said. "Plastic bags are an issue for sea turtles, and they can also entangle the coral and rub back and forth, and that can kill the actual coral animal."

The false teeth were among 85 pounds of trash found on Barracuda Reef, just south of Port Everglades , said Greg Grace, dive master of the American Dream II.

"Just a pair of dentures sitting on the reef," he said.

He's not sure what happened to them.

"Someone may have taken them home as a souvenir," he said.

In Palm Beach County , Narcosis Dive Charters of Riviera Beach headed out to Horseshoe Reef and Paul's Reef off Lake Worth . Here the reefs form a hook that creates a natural basket for waste, said Capt. Van Blakeman, the dive charter's owner. About 20 volunteers hauled trash off the reefs.

"We had a lot of fishing line," he said. "These reefs are frequented by drift boats. We also had lots and lots of beer bottles and beer cans."

They found two unusual items: a lawn chair and large pieces of plastic that may have been the remains of a portable toilet that blew overboard.

They carefully removed the debris, leaving some pieces in places if they had been encrusted with corals.

In addition to organizing reef cleanup events, the program encourages divers to remove small pieces of debris on a regular basis and report reef issues on the Southeast Florida Action Network hotline at 866-770-SEFL or at SEAFAN.net.

Opinions differ on whether the reefs have more or less debris than in the past. Blakeman said it's probably worse, thanks to population growth. Jeff Torode, whose South Florida Diving Headquarters participated in the cleanup, said there's less junk than in the past, thanks to previous cleanups and an improved conservation ethic among boaters and divers.

"The reefs of Broward County are generally fairly clean," he said. "We encourage divers on our dives to pick up what they can, especially plastics and monofilament, and other boats do the same thing."

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