(WSVN) - When you think about vacationing in the Florida Keys, rest and relaxation probably come to mind, but one organization has added work to the itinerary, and thousands of volunteers have already pitched in. Karen Hensel explains in tonight’s 7 Spotlight.
They call themselves the Conch Republic Marine Army.
They are not the military, but group founder Brian Vest and his volunteers are still on a mission.
Brian Vest, CRMA founder: “Our goal is to try and clean the shallow water habitats of the Florida Keys, the entire Florida Keys, one time.”
But before we get to how big of an undertaking this is, we have to go back to 2017, when Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys.
The Category 4 storm destroyed homes, leaving their contents blown everywhere.
Brian Vest: “The best analogy is if you were to take a bulldozer and go right through your garage, right through the back of your garage, and shove it into your swimming pool, everything that went in there.”
In this case, the “swimming pool” is the water that feeds into the ocean.
A few months after Irma hit in 2017, a group of about 25 people helped Brian clean up a canal behind his Big Pine Key home.
But what started small, quickly grew.
Brian Vest: “So our third event is really the one that put us on the map, and that was where 250 people showed up, ambulances, fire and rescue, sheriff’s office, the county, everyone showed up for this thing that was happening on Big Pine, which is a community coming together.”
The Marine Army was born.
In the past five years, Brian says 4,000 volunteers have pitched in to pluck you name it out of the water.
Brian Vest: “Well, we’re talking about sofas, motorcycles, grills. We have found a total of 88 refrigerators out in the back country as far as 25 miles away. We’ve pulled out 214 tons of trash. I think we’re at 2.5 million feet of trap line and rope, which is the distance from Key West to Jacksonville.”
Our cameras were on board as Brian and four volunteers made the trek to a small island where the Marine Army had stacked lobster traps. The power from Hurricane Ian in September moved the traps from deep water, where they were set, to the shallows where the boats of lobster fisherman cannot travel.
Brian Vest: “The storm moved all these traps 3, to 6, in some cases 30 miles.”
One by one, they lifted the nearly 100-pound traps onto paddleboards, into the boat and brought them to land, where the owners of the traps could pick them up for free.
Ryan Fisher, volunteer: “It feels like a drop in the bucket, but at the same time, you know, it’s two boats full of traps that are going to get, you know, going to be reused and get back to the people they belong to.”
Connor Fisher, volunteer: “Super rewarding, though bringing them all out and everything but definitely hard work, definitely hard work.”
Scat Fisher, volunteer: “We live here. This is my home, so to come out here and do this kind of work feels really good to me.”
But despite all the good work, there is still a long way to go.
Brian Vest: “The Florida Keys are a beautiful place, but there’s sections in the Florida Keys that are in really bad trouble.”
The Conch Republic Marine Army has attracted volunteers from around the world.
If you want to learn more about spending a day in the Keys helping out, click here.
Karen Hensel, 7News.
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