A bright pink roseate spoonbill flew overhead.
Capt. Nate Meschelle, at the helm, turned to the boat of volunteers.
“Hey, look! It’s a flamingo!” he said.
The boat of locals erupted in laughter.
Meschelle was one of a handful of commercial fishers from Cortez who volunteered time and boats for a coastal cleanup May 9.
The cleanup was organized by Mark Coarsey, president of Fishing For Freedom’s Manatee County chapter. Fishing For Freedom is a group of mostly commercial fishers advocating for its local industry.
The cleanup was organized in conjunction with the Great American Cleanup with the help of Audubon Florida, Keep Manatee Beautiful and Manatee County, which provided a dumpster, gloves and trash bags.
Split into groups by the boatload, 28 volunteers hit the shorelines of Cortez and nearby mangrove islands, including Tidy Island and Bird Key.
The area is known locally as “The Kitchen.”
“Back in the day, when you wanted something to eat, that’s where you would go. That’s why its called The Kitchen,” said Coarsey.
Meschelle brought one group of volunteers to Tidy Island, east of Cortez, where debris washes ashore at high tide and piles up.
The tide carries the trash to the mangrove-lined shore and, as the tides go out, it’s trapped in the roots.
Ann Paul, Tampa Bay regional coordinator for the Florida Audubon Society, also boarded a commercial fishing vessel for the cleanup.
Paul wasn’t necessarily looking to pick up the washed-up trash, but to help guide the volunteers around sensitive bird roosting areas — particularly on Cortez Key Sanctuary.
“(The key) is one of the most important bird nesting sites in Sarasota Bay. We were really glad the cleanup work didn’t impact nesting birds and, in the meantime, they were able to get trash off the island,” said Paul.
Known locally to fishers as Bird Key or Kitchen Key, the mangrove island was leased from the state by Audubon Florida in 1981.
The key is an important nesting ground. Colonies of pelicans, cormorants, herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills and frigate birds frequent the island by the hundreds.
The key is posted as “No Trespassing” to protect nesting birds. The wading and shorebirds nest in the spring and summer months.
Paul said she met Coarsey two months before the cleanup, as she was launching from Cortez for a bird survey and Coarsey was pulling into the dock.
The two collaborated on the cleanup, a necessary step, Paul said. People are not allowed in the sanctuary without an Audubon manager.
Paul likened the mangroves in estuaries to a kidney. Things get trapped in the mangroves during high tide, effectively cleaning the bay waters and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, which connects to Sarasota Bay.
“(Fishing For Freedom) is a great group and how lucky are we that they’re taking this positive approach,” said Paul. “This group is taking a real leadership role.”
Coarsey said the 20-yard dumpster provided to the volunteers was “more than full” and he speculated they could have filled a second dumpster. The garbage collected in five hours weighed more 6,000 pounds, Coarsey said.
Much of the debris collected consisted of lumber or driftwood, including a portion of the hull of a boat. Among endless beer cans and bottles, other items collected included full-sized trash cans, a deflated basketball, lawn chairs and a chain saw.
Look for more photos at www.islander.org.