With only a pair of gloves, bug spray, a GoPro camera, and industrial-strength garbage bags, 31-year-old Andrew Otazo has picked up more than 2,000 pounds of trash from the mangroves of Bear Cut Preserve in Crandon Park. And with his videos garnering more than 10,000 views on YouTube, he might have just started an environmental movement in Miami.
Having grown up in the Magic City, Otazo has always loved heading to Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. With a beach, tennis center, golf course, and nature center all in one, Crandon Park is a well-kept, 800-acre park for all ages. But those 800 acres have not been cared for equally, which Otazo noticed when he first ventured into Bear Cut Preserve north of the public beach area. Although the preserve includes a beautiful hiking trail that ends on a boardwalk with a view of the downtown Miami skyline, most locals never travel that far into the mangroves — and for a good reason.
Over the past several decades, trash — everything from lobster traps, boots, and beer cans to car bumpers, rugs, and mattresses — has either washed ashore due to high tides or was left behind by boaters or trespassers. Otazo says the debris piles up because there aren’t enough funds allocated to patrol the preserve.
“The Crandon Nature Center does a great job. They do cleanups. However, they don’t have the staff to come out here and clean the mangroves or to kick out the boaters,” Otazo says. “And again, they’re not police officers. Their job is not law enforcement. So, unfortunately, they’ve been attacked by boaters, and they’ve been attacked by fishermen. They have limited staff, so they can't do it all.”
Although police occasionally patrol the area, keeping the mangroves clean isn’t a top priority. “Law enforcement officers are making sure that drunk boaters on the other side of the island and on Nixon Beach aren’t drunk driving, beating each other up, or running over manatees,” Otazo says. “So coming out here and shooing away the boaters that come out here every weekend isn’t a big priority for them.”
In light of broader and scarier-sounding environmental issues such as rising sea levels that threaten Miami, one trashed beach might not seem like a big deal. But Otazo says it's more significant than you might think. Hermit crabs, baitfish, birds, and other species native to the saltwater mangroves are now cohabiting with the very things that are killing them, such as plastic bottles, Styrofoam, industrial tubing, and even boat parts. Some pieces of trash have been there for so long that mangrove roots have surrounded and penetrate them, making the pieces incredibly difficult to pick up. "The reason the mangroves are so important is that their roots allow juvenile fish and very young marine animals to come in here to be protected as they grow. And then, once they grow up, they go out into the ocean. So these canals are what allow them to move in and out,” he explains. “They also serve as a very important rectory for birds. So they’ll come out here, since it’s a relatively safe environment and there aren’t really many predators, they’ll build a nest, and lay their eggs.”
It was this shocking discovery that prompted Otazo — whose resumé includes interning for the State Department, attending the United States Military Academy for two years, and serving as a research associate at Harvard Business School — to act rather than complain. “I’ve wanted to clean Bear Cut Preserve for years. I used to come out here with a little Hefty bag, but I’d make no headway. Then I realized the only way to actually make an impact was to come out here day after day. It didn’t matter if it was for one or two hours after work. I would come here and work on it. And then, finally, I made some headway.” Since his first outing, Otazo has picked up more than 2,360 pounds of trash in roughly 91 hours, or 27 days.
As he ventured into the mangroves to pick up trash day after day, he began documenting his journey on his YouTube channel. He says he had no idea his videos would go viral or make any sort of impact. “I really wasn’t hoping that people would get motivated to help out or anything; it was more like, Oh, let me videotape this. And when I posted it, it got a really good reception, which was surprising to me because I didn’t think that me walking around the mangroves with a bag on my shoulder would be very compelling, but people connected with it.’”
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Before long, local organizations such as the Frost Museum of Science, Belen Jesuit's Key Club, and Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation had reached out to Otazo to ask how they could help. Last weekend, in partnership with the Frost and Baynanza's Biscayne Bay Cleanup Day, concerned citizens gathered at Bear Cut Preserve for a mass cleanup. “This is all because they’ve seen my videos,” he says in disbelief. “Previously, I would write to the publications or I would write to the county, and nothing would happen. But if you show people this stuff, then that’s a different story.”
And Otazo's efforts won't stop there. “This cleanup is the first step, but further down the line, I want to make sure I can bring students out here who wouldn’t be exposed to this stuff so they can see for themselves the richness of their local environment and the fragility of it,” he says, “because if the next generation doesn’t get educated about it, we’re screwed.”
Follow Otazo's cleanup efforts on YouTube.