If you’ve spent any time on the water, you’ve seen it: glass bottles, chunks of foam, the remains of an old fishing net, plastic shopping bags, a partially inflated balloon, all floating on a foul-smelling matt of brown scum. While many sail past in disappointment or disgust, others make it their mission to hunt down the debris, including the scientists, researchers and crew of the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean aboard the 60-foot “green” research sailboat, American Promise.
Husband and wife Rachael Miller and James Lyne, longtime competitive sailors, founded the Rozalia Project in 2009 after noticing one constant throughout their worldwide ocean travels: trash. Since the beginning, Rozalia, named for Miller’s great-grandmother, has focused on the problem of marine debris and solving it through prevention, cleanup and research.
“A lot of people say the only way to fight the problem of marine debris is to prevent it, and that you can’t clean it, but we disagree. Cleanup is an important part of the solution,” says Miller.
To manage its oceanic cleanup efforts, Rozalia concentrates on the source—urban and coastal waters, where garbage begins its journey into the marine environment. Rozalia’s two-tiered approach within these areas is straightforward: prevent trash from entering the waterways and remove trash from the waterways.
In terms of successful prevention, the organization urges people to change the way they perceive trash. Specifically, they want us to treat our trash, especially plastics, like gold—if we’re not careless with gold, we shouldn’t be negligent with trash either.
For example, we should think twice before balancing an empty chip bag atop a mound of garbage in an overflowing outdoor trash bin. Along these same lines, Miller says we should have better recycling programs and a suitable number of trash and recycling bins in public spaces. She argues that “prevention” can be as simple as picking up a few pieces of trash during your morning jog, or teaching children to adopt “reduce, reuse, recycle” as a way of life.
To fight the battle against the junk, the organization works aboard the super-green American Promise—the same American Promise Dodge Morgan used to become the first American to sail solo nonstop around the world in 1986. In addition to Rozalia’s small American Promise crew, interns and guest scientists will also sometimes join the organization on 2-4 week research and cleanup expeditions.
The nine-berth research vessel, which is based in Kittery, Maine, uses only about 3 gallons of fuel per day, compared to the 150 gallons of fuel a day a comparable research vessel might consume. Recently, Rozalia removed the powered water system and hot-water tank. Now the sink and shower are operated with foot pumps and hot water for showering is prepared in a gallon jug through a mixture of kettle-boiled water and cool water. In 2014 the group also installed a Steyr Tier 3 marine diesel engine, which is energy-efficient, low noise, low vibration, and the lowest emission diesel engine on the market.
And American Promise isn’t just a “green” boat above the waterline; she is also outfitted with advanced equipment below the sea to assist Rozalia on its garbage hunt. Arguably her two most important devices are her VideoRay Pro 4 ROVds, which can operate 1,000 feet underwater at any temperature. These tiny robots have a Blueview sonar attachment, which takes photos and videos of its surroundings while finding and collecting debris off the ocean floor. Meanwhile, the Tritech Starfish seabed imaging system, which American Promise pulls from its stern, provides continuous wide-ranging sonar images of what’s beneath the surface, which saves the crew from having to dive below. The amount of trash the crew picks up can range from hundreds to thousands of pieces a day depending on its location, and anything recovered is either reused, recycled, or if nothing else, placed in a landfill so it won’t make its way back to sea.
In addition to removing trash from coastal waterways and addressing the problem at its source, Rozalia is also beginning work on a new project: kelp forest protection, starting with Cashes Ledge. Cashes Ledge is an undersea mountain range off the coast of Maine, and features the largest and deepest kelp forest in the Atlantic.
Kelp forests are important ecosystems that serve as sources of food and protection for a huge number of diverse organisms, especially those that make up the base of the marine food chain. Environmental threats like pollution, global warming, kelp harvesting (for everything from shampoo to salad dressing), and bottom trawling put these ecosystems at risk. Of particular concern for Rozalia is bottom trawling—a destructive method of fishing that the organization hopes to ban in which a net is dragged along the sea floor, scooping up kelp and everything else along the way.
“When we heard about the situation brewing at Cashes Ledge we had a major revelation, and that was ‘what good is a clean ocean if its creatures and habitats aren’t also thriving?’” Miller explains.
Finally, Rozalia has partnered with the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England-based environmental activism group, on a petition against the New England Fishery Management Council’s proposal to open nearly 75 percent of the protected area at Cashes Ledge to bottom trawling. Miller suggests ocean lovers lend their voices to the cause by writing to NOAA in support of a ban on bottom trawling, and also in support of closing the high seas to fishing—a measure that would transform 56 percent of the ocean into a marine park.
If nothing else, Miller says the most basic way sailors can help keep our oceans clean is to treat floating trash “like a man overboard”—meaning the next time you’re out on the water and spot garbage, don’t just sail on by. Grab your boat hook and fish it out. As Miller says, “If you can keep a five gallon plastic bucket from breaking up into fifty-thousand pieces of micro plastic in the middle of the ocean, then you’ve made a huge difference.”