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Isla Mar set to lead large-scale marine debris removal effort in Puerto Rico

On April 21, 2023, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program announced 14 recommended projects for a funding total of over $69 million towards removing large-scale marine debris across the United States and territories. One of the projects recommended for funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is the only project targeting marine debris removal in Puerto Rico, submitted by Isla Mar.

The project “Setting the baseline for a marine debris-free Puerto Rico” will remove 70 abandoned and derelict vessels from around the island thereby focusing on the removal of one of the largest and most damaging types of marine debris to natural resources. Project partners include HJR Reefscaping, Reel E Good Sea Services, and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PR DNER). The three-year project will address direct large-scale marine debris removal, facilitate agency response to this issue, and educate about marine debris prevention. “This project will have visible and tangible impacts on the island by removing some of the largest and most challenging marine debris that cannot be handled through smaller-scale efforts,” states Dr. Chelsea Harms-Tuohy, marine biologist and co-founder of Isla Mar.

Each of the 70 derelict vessels is severely impacting natural resources, such as damaging seagrass beds, grounding on coral reefs, or accumulating in a dumping site that promotes further discard of abandoned vessels. “Potential physical threats to coral reefs from abandoned and derelict vessels include damage from the initial vessel grounding, damage from the vessel creating coral rubble which is moved by wave action, crushing and displacement of marine organisms plus the reduction of the structural complexity. After that, the first priority becomes the salvaging of dislodged corals, to stabilize them from future damage, until we can get them cemented back in place,” says Dr. Hector Ruiz of HJR Reefscaping, a coral reef biologist and reef restoration expert. A local company, Reel E Good Sea Services, will be handling the removal and disposal of the vessels. “We are working with a business that has experience in vessel removal of this magnitude and we are grateful for the opportunity to use local expertise to achieve this goal,” says Dr. Harms-Tuohy.

The project will also create a coordination strategy among local agencies responsible for handling derelict vessels to streamline the response to future cases. “The magnitude of abandoned and derelict vessels is greater than people perceive. An average of 10 vessels are reported monthly as affecting our shorelines. The impact they have on the marine ecosystem is often overlooked. They affect sea turtle nesting beaches, coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves. They could belong to a person whose identity is not known or be the result of vessels used for illegal activities,” says Dr. Nilda Jimenez, a marine biologist with the PR DNER who will be leading the coordination strategy.

This funding opens opportunities for the island that have never been available in the past for this type of effort. “Puerto Rico has not often had the benefit of this type of funding that is dedicated to removing these vessels. So, taking advantage of this opportunity to streamline the response to these abandoned vessels, identify potential for different entities (federal agencies, municipalities, state agencies, nongovernmental organizations) to collaborate and be part of a national response that aims to generate an adequate and efficient disposal of abandoned and derelict vessels is crucial,” states Dr. Jimenez. This project seeks to decrease the problem in the future through its structured coordination strategy with the various agencies responsible for responding to these issues.

Puerto Rico has not often had the benefit of this type of funding that is dedicated to removing these vessels. - Dr. Jimenez

Preventing marine debris, particularly of this magnitude, is a necessary action to help restore and maintain the natural ecosystem. This project will focus on outreach initiatives for students to gain hands-on experience in shadowing biologists in coral relocation and restoration efforts post-debris removal and will develop means for the boating community to report abandoned and derelict vessels and learn how to prevent their own vessel from becoming part of the problem. A local artisan will also be creating artistic sculptures using the debris removed from this project for installations at four coastal municipalities to help draw attention to how marine debris impacts our environment.

This project will be the only federally funded marine debris removal effort for Puerto Rico for the fiscal year grant cycle 2023. “We are excited to be leading this effort and to be engaging multiple local companies so that all of the work is led and completed by on-island experts in their fields”, says Dr. Harms-Tuohy.

This project was also part of the recent Biden-Harris Administration announcement on April 21, 2023 regarding $34.4 million in funding for recommended projects specifically in Puerto Rico aimed at strengthening climate-ready coasts.

This article was generated from our press release submitted on May 8, 2023


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