Cortney Benson of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation operates a lift bag during a Dive Against Debris with Key Dives. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

On May 11-13, Islamorada restoration nonprofit I.CARE will host the first-ever Trash Derby. The Keys-wide, weekend-long contest and celebration plans to tackle the amount of debris affecting our islands. The format is loosely modeled on popular Lionfish Derbies, which bring concentrated effort into one place over a prescribed amount of time to make a big impact. For the Trash Derby, you can get involved picking up trash in three ways: on land, using private watercrafts or participating with local dive shops. 

“Pulling debris aligns well with I.CARE’s mission to restore coral reefs here in the Keys,” said I.CARE founder and Key Dives owner Mike Goldberg. “If there’s one thing the Keys community can band together around, it is bringing back a healthy, thriving reef.”

I.CARE outplants coral every week – and 95% of that effort is done by hand by recreational divers with partnering dive shops. These citizen-scientists are locals and tourists who want to learn and lend a hand. In the two years the program has been in place, over 2,000 divers have gone through it. 

Debris-free reefs aid coral restoration efforts by providing a “clean slate” for divers to outplant on. Trash in the water can also abrade, smash or otherwise destroy fragile corals. So, the efforts are inextricably linked. Debris is also dangerous for wildlife; it entangles sea turtles, dolphins, manatees and birds. 

According to PADI AWARE, 80% of physical debris in our ocean comes from land-based sources, so stopping the flow of trash and plastic from land is a powerful way to protect our waters. 

The I.CARE team participates in a shoreline cleanup. Land-based efforts are a critical part of the Trash Derby. I.CARE/Contributed

On land, trash is equally damaging. Ocean currents can bring trash from far away to our shorelines, where it acts as an eyesore to locals and tourists. Big storms can take trash from land, boats or the water (line and traps) and twist it around mangrove roots, corals and other critical habitats. 

To combat this, the Trash Derby includes one and a half days of debris collection by land and sea, followed by a family-friendly festival at Islamorada’s Founders Park. The latter will include food, music, eco-minded vendors, local environmental organizations, an award ceremony, raffles, silent auction, games and activities. Oh, and almost $6,000 in cash prizes for winners in the different cleanup categories. 

“The original idea was to get all dive shops involved in this community project in a way that brought them all together for a common cause,” Goldberg told the Weekly. “We took it further, wanting to bring everyone together, including private boat owners and folks that want to do shoreline clean-ups.”

Sponsorship from throughout the community has been crucial to bringing this first-ever event to fruition, Goldberg said. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, in support of Goal: Clean Seas Program, partnered with I.CARE, and generosity from other foundations, marinas, dive shops, waste disposal companies, rum manufacturers and apparel makers have made it possible.

“Marine debris is a massive problem worldwide, and this event helps address this issue,” Goldberg said. “At the same time, it brings awareness to the state of our coral reefs and the work that I.CARE and other reef restoration practitioners are doing to solve this local and global problem.”

Goldberg is hopeful that the effort will hit a minimum of 4,000 pounds of debris over the course of the derby. His dive shop, Key Dives, recently surpassed 20,000 pounds of debris removed through Dives Against Debris

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation hopes that as much debris collected as possible can be reused and repurposed locally. If local businesses and organizations can use old traps, lines, monofilament, buoys, various plastics and other common marine debris, contact Cortney Benson at [email protected].

So, what’s next? 

Right now is the time to register – either as a team or with a local participating dive shop, Goldberg said. Land-based and private vessel teams are free to register. Dive operators pay $250, but registration is free for Blue Star Operators. Register and learn more at

“Let’s go have some fun helping our ocean,” Goldberg said.