A Look at an Historic Day for Puerto Rico’s Tarpon-Filled Urban Lagoons

01, credit pedro ortiz.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
FIFTEEN TONS: That’s the astonishing amount of trash collected by nearly 400 volunteers from the urban lagoons and estuaries of Puerto Rico on Saturday, March 16. Other notable numbers include four hours — the length of time it took for those busy individuals to pull all that trash from the mangrove forests that rim these lovely lagoons., and about four weeks — the length of time between the decision a couple of anglers made to hold a PR-wide lagoon cleanup day and the whole thing coming together with remarkable organization. What prompted anglers Israel Umpierre and José Aponte and others to undertake such a daunting task was SF's February editorial, "Urban Lagoons: On the Brink." Although I was flattered to repeatedly hear the magazine lauded (or blamed in jest by some weary volunteers) as responsible for the massive cleanup (limpieza) effort, in fact, it was of course weeks of planning and coordination by these sport fishermen that made it happen. They also obtained support from dozens of sponsors, including the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, West Marine, Daiwa and Yo-Zuri, and got a number of major government officials involved. I took a few photos that offer some idea of how this extraordinary event in Puerto Rico went down and share some in the following pages — but the shot at the left was taken by an event volunteer and really captures the spirit of the cleanup. Members of the Kayakeros Del Este club were out in force and loaded up their craft like this happy hauler, with tires, old chairs, nets and much more.Pedro Ortiz
02.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
Worth saving: It’s impossible to venture onto Puerto Rico’s lagoons, much of them hidden from view, without appreciating their abundant mangrove forests.
03.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
No small job faced the cleanup volunteers. Quite literally tons of garbage awaited, from bottles and cans to TV sets (the egret was not picked up).
04.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
Early morning media session with two men who were primary forces behind the cleanup, Israel Umpierre (left) and José Aponte (right).
04b-kayakers.jpg
Till Brauer, who volunteered his services and his boat for the event, gives an early morning assist to a long chain of kayakers, as he tows them from the Tarpon’s Nest Lodge in Laguna La Torrecilla to dropoff points along shores of various lagoons.
05.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
The event was amazingly well organized, with several manned, trash-dropoff points at strategic spots around the lagoons. As much trash as would fit into bags was bagged and weighed; larger items were weighed separately.
06.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
All manner of boats crisscrossed lagoons and channels to haul out trash. It seemed plain to me that volunteers like these genuinely took pleasure in doing their part to free their beautiful lagoons of their trashy burden.
07.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
At many points with access to water’s edge, volunteers on foot joined the effort as well, finding no shortage of junk to haul away.
08.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
In some spots, snorkelers pulled crap from the bottom.
09.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
The same divers found “trash” of another kind, easily spearing dozens of lionfish that made this rocky channel near the yacht club their home!
10.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
Posters like this reminded volunteers that certain kinds of trash, particularly things medical, were not to be picked up except by properly equipped authorities.
11.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
Volunteers, working back in the mangroves, rousted a large iguana, that slithered its way across a narrow lagoon.
12.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
Government officials from many agencies, particularly those related to the environment and waters turned out in a big way for the event. Nice to know this is definitely on their radar!
13.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
At about 10 a.m. (midway through the four-hour event), this was just a small fraction of the trash that ended up being brought in to this dropoff station.
14.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
Volunteers wrestled from the lagoon dozens of old tires.
15.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
That afternoon, after a lunch of paella, salad and desserts, all volunteers at the Los Cangrejos Yacht Club (HQ for the event) took part in educational activities regarding the island’s lagoons and environment. Here, Tony Fins, executive director of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, speaks to a packed hall.
16.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
While activities were going on early in the afternoon, volunteers tallied up the sheets from each checkpoint, where type and category of trash collected had been tallied at stopping time.
17.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
One of many unexpected “finds” from the lagoons: A child’s electrical car, heavily covered with barnacles. Volunteers also pulled out a long-abandoned personal watercraft.
18.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
Proving that Sport Fishing readers know where to go for good fishing, this very old SF cap was among the objects that had gotten left behind in the lagoons. It’s held here by Jose Aponte, who’s son, Anibal, made the what-are-the-odds find.
19.puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
After the educational activities, it was time for drawings to dole out the goods and services provided for volunteers. Here, a Daiwa Ballistic reel and matching rod and two Yo-Zuri Sashimi lures made for some happy volunteers. (The volunteer at far left drove from the western island for three hours to participate.)
20 (credit jason arnold).puerto-rico-cleanup.jpg
One of the many reasons it matters: These lagoons harbor a world-class sport fishery for tarpon and snook; it would be tragic to lose that. But I suspect the organizers of this event aren’t about to let that happen. They’re already talking about the next one! To that, I say Viva Puerto Rico!courtesy Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com