More than 2,000 different people have signed waivers with Conch Republic Marine Army and have helped clean nearshore waters of debris. Car parts, refrigerators, lawn mowers, paint cans, RoundUp — it’s all been pulled out by the community army armed with kayaks, scuba tanks, snorkels and rope cutters.

It started on Dec. 30, 2017, when a concerned citizen knew someone was going to clean the canals and clean the roadways: But who was going to get the mattresses and the hot tub and all the other debris that washed across the street to the shorelines?

Conch Republic Marine Army founder Brian Vest reached out and 25 people showed up and pulled 8,000 pounds the first day. “We didn’t even make a dent,” he said. The next time he did the cleanup, 150 people showed up. “We aren’t done.”

Now, 103.61 tons later, the army is the force to be reckoned with. “You don’t need to join us, you are already a part of us,” said Vest. “It’s a big ‘we,’ the army.”

103.61 tons of trash is roughly equal to 70 Mini Cooper cars. Eighteen Mini Coopers fit on a semi-truck. That’s a lot of trash out of local nearshore waters.

Vest says the biggest problem is scale. When 100 people show up to clean up, it’s a big difference from 10 people. The need for scale is about having enough people to make a real impact. He expects more than 100 people at this weekend’s battle.

Vest, who was semi-retired at the time Hurricane Irma hit, now has zero free time since commanding the Conch Republic Marine Army. Fellow army members helped form a nonprofit and started raising money for the organization. “This is something that will be around for a long, long time,” said Vest. “It was bad before Irma; Irma just made it worse.”

In the future, Vest sees the army being replicated across the country in coastal areas and has already been contacted by state agencies with Hurricane Michael closing in on Florida shorelines. In addition, he has his eye on a federal grant for marine related debris cleanup and has a ton of ideas up his sleeves to help the marine environment and advance the mission.

It all started with a little bit of spare time and a kayak, but recently with the donation of a new vessel for the fleet, Vest is happy to have a boat that is reliable. “Who really wants to put a refrigerator on their boat?” he said of the 72 refrigerators they have pulled out of the water. Now each new scratch the vessel takes on will be a battle scar worn proudly.

Although they have collected tons of trash, Vest said that it’s the type of pounds collected versus the number of pounds that is important. At one point, the army had an entire dump truck filled with just plastics. “It’s the smaller items just under the surface, like the paint cans that sank to the ocean floor, that are the ticking time bombs,” he said.

The battles, a.k.a. cleanups, don’t happen every weekend, and Vest tries to position them around other nonprofit events to not interfere with their efforts. “There are still major issues in the community, people with no roofs still, suicide rates up, housing and other social issues, but I am going to keep trying to do something on the environmental side of it,” he said.

Now, he urges everyone from grandmas to grandkids and everyone in between to come out and join the army. “We are probably the most diverse group of people in the Keys,” he said. Members have sent photos in from Canada to your neighbors who now sport a CRMA tattoo. If you can’t physically participate, there are still ways to help, from cutting watermelon to buying a T-shirt at

“When people started getting the CRMA tattoos, that’s when I knew we were making a difference,” he said of the seven known tattoos in the Lower Keys. “That’s when I knew we needed to take this extremely seriously.”

Join the Army this Saturday, Oct. 13
from Bimini Lane from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Lunch provided by Kiki’s Sandbar
Donuts and Coffee by Vineyard Christian Center
and support by Winn-Dixie and Big Pine Kayak Adventures for more info.

Kristen Livengood
Kristen Livengood is a Marathon High School and University of South Florida grad, mom of two beautiful little girls, and wife to some cute guy she met in a bar. She enjoys red wine, Tito's, Jameson, running (very, very slowly), and spearfishing.