For more than a decade a nonprofit organization based on Aquidneck Island has been advocating for the protection of access to the coastline, and working toward a healthy ocean free of marine debris. It’s a mission that combines education and action, and has resulted in Clean Ocean Access having an impact not only in its backyard but around the region. This month, Jim Hummel takes a look at some of the events that are putting mission into practice.
For more information about Clean Ocean Access click here.
The volunteers who fanned out across Second Beach were on a mission.
While hundreds of people enjoyed a quintessential Rhode Island Beach day, dozens of others arrived just after 5 o’clock at the western end of the beach to pick up trash.
They didn’t have to go very far.
Welcome to the After5 Beach Cleanup - held every Wednesday throughout the summer - run by Clean Ocean Access, a nonprofit organization that focuses on shoreline access and a healthy ocean free of marine debris. It’s one of many events the organization holds to combine education and action, especially on Aquidneck Island.
Dave McLaughlin, the nonprofit’s executive director, said it has become a popular weekly event at one of the state’s prettiest and most populated beaches.
McLaughlin: “People usually have plans on the weekend and it costs money to go to the beach And the beach management team does a great job of cleaning the shoreline. So we figured what better way to bring awareness to what’s left at the because immediately after a day at the beach? And do it right when the parking is free.”
The program, held weekly in the summer and on weekends the rest of the year, is in its sixth year.
McLaughlin: “I guess I’m surprised about by the fact that we continue to find as much as we do. I think in the first year we tried to work on one very specific geographical region and today we cover more of an expanse of the beach. I think the amount of debris that clearly is being washed up, like derelict fishing gear, balloons that are caught in the seaweed zone, the amount of debris that’s coming in from the ocean is perhaps the area that is of concern but also the hope that if that’s the only thing we have to do, then we just have to keep cleaning it up.”
“The goal for this organization is to change human behavior, and that takes some time.”
Monica DeAngelis is president of the board of directors for Clean Ocean Access. She went to Rogers High School with McLaughlin in the late 1980s and reconnected when a mutual friend told her about what the organization was doing.
She said the beach cleanups are a wakeup call for many.
DeAngelis; “They really are surprised at the amount of debris they pick up and the types of debris they pick up. And we try to educate them at these events. They’ll come and they’ll show you - look at what I found. Do you know what that is? That is, the Styrofoam from a Dunkin Donuts cup that’s probably been sitting out for years. That little piece is what that is. I found all these straws! Or what is this, that’s the filter of a cigarette; the nicotine is no longer there but that remained. And a bird might eat it or something else might ingest it.”
McLaughlin: “If you can’t get to the water’s edge, it’s pretty hard to enjoy it, and then why would you care about its cleanliness?”
While there is a heavy emphasis on healthy oceans and cleaning up marine debris, Clean Ocean Access was rooted in an issue McLaughlin, as a surfer, had more than a decade ago.
McLaughlin: “It was in 2006, we got out of the water after riding some waves out at Ruggles and we were told we weren’t allowed to park on a particular street, which we thought that something we really needed was being taken away from us. We went to the police station, who told us to go to the City Council, and that really brought up the fact that protecting and preserving public access to the shorelines to enjoy ocean activities was really important.”
Later that year there were multiple beach closures in Newport because of pollution.
McLaughlin: “That was a call to action, that protecting water quality - the water that we surf in all year long was really important, so access and water quality, that’s really what formed Clean Ocean Access.
On a foggy Saturday morning last month more than 90 people converged on The Newport Shipyard for the 2nd Annual Paddle for Access. Most were paddle boarders, with a few kayakers sprinkled in. The event offered 3- and 6-mile courses, both heading north toward the Newport Bridge and eventually around Goat Island before returning to Newport Harbor.
Participants from seven states came in for the event, including one who left Maine at 3:30 that morning.
Clean Ocean Access told participants that the event celebrates its work to monitor all 50 rights-of-way across Aquidneck Island and to make sure everyone has access to the shoreline.
Remaining vigilant and protecting public access is something that we have to keep doing, because all it takes is one shrub bush, the lack of use and all of a sudden a public right of way can become private.”
Just to the south at Perrotti Park, Clean Ocean Access installed the first trash skimmer on the East Coast. Every day it picks up anywhere from 25 to 50 pounds of trash. And you might be surprised what shows up.
McLaughlin: “And our goal really is to demonstrate to coastal communities how easy it is and how much impact you can have by putting in a skimmer. I mean if there’s going to be a garbage can on land, there should be a skimmer in the ocean until you don’t need either of them.”
The Newport Harbormaster’s office empties the machine a couple of times a day. Every week, Clean Ocean Access goes down to do a detailed analysis of what it’s collecting.
McLaughlin: “I think the part that caught me a little bit off guard and made me kind of have an aha moment in terms of why what we’re doing is so important is to understand the magnitude of the comingled nature of the marine debris and plastics with all the macroalgae and all the seaweed. When you start to look through it and you see all these medium, small and tiny pieces of plastic mixed in with all the seaweed - and there’s like 39 different types of seaweed in our waters here - I can just imagine how impossibly hard it is for marine life to figure out what’s edible and what’s not.”
DeAngelis: “The greatest thing we can do is bring people to see something like that. Bring people to learn about what these skimmers are doing. Bring people to a cleanup, to participate in a cleanup. It’s an hour out of your day, but that hands- on experience changes how people think.”
Clean Ocean Access also supplements water quality testing done by the Rhode Island Department of health.
Touhey: “For our ocean program we collect 12 water samples every Thursday morning, eight water samples every Saturday morning and we get bacteria results from the Rhode Island Department of Health, as well as information about the conditions of the samples that were taken.”
Program Manager Eva Touhey said the state stops testing when the summer season is over.
Touhey: “We find it important to test year-round because obviously after Labor Day we’re still swimming in the beach and people are surfing year round.”
Touhey also is spearheading an effort to do more composting on Aquidneck Island and talk to students about it in local schools.
Touhey: “We’re using Healthy Soils Health Seas as a way to connect our actions on land to how we are seeing what’s happening to our oceans. So by having to sort your food waste, we’re diverting that much food waste from going into the landfill and then you’re learning how much waste is then recyclable and how much waste is actually ending up in your trash can.”
DeAngelis: “I’ll be honest when that first came about I was like, composting, that’s interesting twist.”
Hummel: “Is that in our wheelhouse?”
DeAngelis: “Yeah, is that in our wheelhouse, okay let’s think about this a little more strategically. Well, of course it makes sense. Here we are talking about water quality - the point source for water quality is up the river, it’s not down by the ocean. I’m mean that’s where we’re seeing the impacts. The consequences of someone’s action up the river, or up the creek, is coming down in the ocean, which is what people see.So we’re making that connection for people to understand that hey, what you do in your own backyard actually matters. When you go to the beach and complain about the beach being closed, or there’s trash on the beach, actually it starts on land. It’s not just something that all of a sudden the ocean decided to get angry with you and produce.”
In only its fifth year since officially becoming a nonprofit, Clean Ocean has made significant inroads in the local community and caught the attention of those beyond Aquidneck Island.
DeAngelis: “People in other surrounding communities and in other states have seen what we’ve done here and want to know what can we learn from you so we can make this happen where we are because we feel that this is very important.”
DeAngelis says Clean Ocean Access is walking the balance between trying to help and educate as many people and organizations as possible and not stretching itself too thin with the resources it has.
DeAngelis: “We rarely say no, when someone asks us to participate in something. And I think a lot of that has to do with, you’re a new nonprofit, you’re just trying to find your way. We’re five years in now, almost six, and we’re not infants anymore, we’re kind of in the teenage years so we’re sort of trying to figure out where we fit in, what works best. The growth is just a matter of figuring that out'
In Middletown, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.