Community responds to Fish Island cleanup call

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More than 200 volunteers participated in the Fish Island Community Cleanup Saturday in two shifts.

The cleanup was hosted by the Matanzas Riverkeeper, Jen Lomberk, and the City of St. Augustine to remove debris scattered throughout the 59-acre property – much of it left by transients who squatted on the land before the North Florida Land Trust purchase was finalized in November. A contractor had previously removed large amounts of trash, but individuals were able to reach small pockets blocked by dense vegetation and scour underbrush for smaller items like batteries, eyeglasses, CDs, clothing, cans, bottles and myriad other items.

“The community response has been so fantastic,” Lomberk said. “It’s a little overwhelming, but needed.”

Equipped with gloves, large buckets and extended “grabbers,” the first wave of volunteers was assigned to one of five groups with a leader who guided them to the team’s cleanup area. The City had placed three dumpsters on the property, and there were rolling trash bins at regular intervals along the main path.

Fish Island is located adjacent to the southeast foot of the State Road 312 Bridge. Mike and Cindy Alyea live on Anastasia Island and have followed the initiative to preserve the tract of land for many years. The couple operates local nonprofit Blue Ocean Sails. They volunteered for the cleanup because “the quality on land affects the quality of water, so it’s all integrated,” Mike Alyea said.

Police Chief Barry Fox and several deputies arrived before the 8 a.m. check-in time to ensure there were no active transient camps that day. Fox said that if any homeless were contacted, they would have been put in touch with local services to get them the help they need. Officers were on site throughout the cleanup and readily available “to deal with animals or anything volunteers may be uncomfortable with,” Fox said.

For now, there is a gate blocking entry and the tract is posted “no trespassing.” The City of St. Augustine is expected to reveal plans for a park on the land and will announce the opening when the site is deemed safe and any artifacts are preserved.

Striker Thompson, a 6-year-old student at Osceola Elementary and future archaeologist, volunteered for the cleanup with his parents. The family was interested in seeing the long-abandoned homestead of Jesse Fish. Near the remaining coquina foundation of the Fish home, Striker found a white pottery shard with a cobalt blue design on the edge. Archaeological consultant Chris Newman flagged the small piece so that it could be cataloged later, and so that another volunteer did not pick up and discard the find.

Striker likes archaeology because “you find a lot of artifacts – stuff from olden times,” he said. “I might find more pottery.”

And within a few minutes, he did.

“It’s because he’s close to the ground,” Newman said as she flagged Striker’s second discovery.

City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline’s group collected several interesting items – many of them gross and disgusting. But near the end of the two-hour shift, Sikes-Kline emerged from the overgrowth holding up a Lodge brand iron frying pan. It was rusted and “crusty,” but her face told a different story. The discarded item might as well have been treasure, not trash, when she enthusiastically shared her find with other volunteers.

“I feel like we got a lot done,” Sikes-Kline said about her group. “For us, it was a lot along the water – stuff that just washed up.”

To thank volunteers, commissioners and city officials presented a pin of the City’s logo to each volunteer. At the end of her 2-hour cleanup effort, Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman returned to the check-out tent and “pinned” several volunteers.

“It’s an alignment of the stars over 12 years,” Freeman said. “Every single player, including the negative components, turned the tide,” she said about the successful preservation efforts. “We had people who never got involved in environmental issues in their life get involved.”

On Monday, Lomberk reported all three dumpsters were full and larger items like mattresses, chairs and tires were piled next to the bins. The City’s solid waste department will collect the debris and have a final weight later in the week.

“My faith is humanity is restored,” Lomberk said. “Today is a good day.”

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