Manatee gathering spot in Lake Worth Lagoon gets cleaned up

An old cell phone, hundreds of aluminum cans, yards of fishing line with hooks, and plastic toys were among the 64 pounds of items retrieved Friday during the first-ever underwater cleanup in front of Manatee Lagoon at the West Palm Beach-Riviera Beach border.

Five divers and snorkelers from Florida Power & Light’s Manatee Lagoon took to the mostly calm and clear waters of the Lake Worth Lagoon where they picked up trash in 15-to-20 feet of water. The area scouted for trash was a little larger than a football field.

The trash picked up by divers and snorkelers — Chelsea Bennice, Rachel Shanker, Rachel Plunkett, Natalie Dellobuono and Laura McCarthy — were placed in bags. Representatives from Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management ferried the bags of trash back to land in a 12-foot aluminum boat.

“We wanted to make sure that people understand that you need to dispose of your refuse properly,” said FPL spokesman Richard Gibbs said. “If you throw it away on land, there is nothing to stop it from getting into the marine environment.”

Gibbs said the scheduling of the clean-up had manatees in mind.

“We cleaned the lagoon area around here because we are preparing for manatee season,” Gibbs said. “We know they get entangled in fishing wire and plastic bags.”

Manatee Lagoon, an FPL Eco-Discovery Center, opened to the public in February. It’s adjacent to FPL’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center, where hundreds of manatees gather during cold snaps each year near the plant’s warm-water outflows. The tiny inlet where the water that cools the plant is released into the Intracoastal Waterway at about 97 degrees has been a refuge for manatees since the 1940s.

Sea to Shore Alliance, a Sarasota-based conservation non-profit that focuses on manatees, sea turtles and right whales, has conducted many underwater cleanups and was on hand to lend expertise.

Katelyn Cucinotta, a Sea to Shore conservation biologist who manages the group’s H2O program in Boynton Beach, said marine debris, in addition to being unsightly, can harm manatees, turtles, fish and other sea life. Sea creatures can be caught in the trash and die after consuming plastic bags and other debris.

“One of the number one items manatees ingest is line mono-filament. They get fishing line in their belly. They are eating what is in the seagrass,” Cucinotta said.

Cucinotta, who sorted the debris, theorized that a lot of it, such as aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles and food wrappers came from people visiting nearby Peanut Island.

All except the nastiest items will be displayed at Manatee Lagoon.

Sea to Shore advises boaters to keep an eye on fishing gear on their boats, and says consumers should refuse single-use plastic bags. Pick up trash others leave behind.

“It’s not the end of the world to pick up some trash. You could be saving marine life,” Cucinotta said.

Within the next couple of weeks, Sea to Shore plans to launch a mobile classroom in a converted bus to teach people about the problem of marine debris and the importance of proper trash disposal, Cucinotta said.

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