By START Gulf Ambassador Arya Muppavarapu

From time to time, START encourages citizens to share their unique experiences in working to help improve the water quality of our coastal waters in our Gulf Ambassador series of articles. We think you will enjoy reading about all Arya Muppavarapu has done to help our marine environment. He is a sophomore at Milton Academy in Boston, Massachusetts.

Walking towards the beach one day in the early fall of 2017, the stench hit me first. As my feet stepped onto the cool sand, I glanced towards the shoreline and the sight of thousands of dead fish and other sea creatures stretched as far as I could see.. Officials were warding others off of the area. The huge swathes of dead creatures and the scavengers feasting on their corpses created a dangerous dystopian scene on what had previously been pristine white sands and turquoise waters.

Fishing is my passion and I’m fortunate to live in Nokomis, close to the Gulf. Every month me and my dad would go deep sea fishing over the weekend and have the time of our lives. That fall day in 2017 was the first time I had witnessed the destruction caused by red tide up close and, curious to know more, I dug deep into research to understand what caused it and how I, as a high school student, could get involved in environmental clean-up and ocean sustainability. As a member of Scubanauts International, I have worked to spread awareness about marine life and what we can do to preserve it. For example, during Capitol Hill Oceans Week, or CHOW for short, I went with fellow members of Scubanauts International to talk with Florida’s senators and representatives including Marco Rubio, Kathy Castor, and more. The reason was to raise awareness about issues with the ocean, including red tide. Walking into their offices we were prepared with a PowerPoint to help convey the situation. We were able to get our request for a grant of $50,000 fulfilled, of which the money went to ocean conservation efforts in Southwest Florida.

I also took a trip down to the Florida Keys with my fellow Scubanauts in the summer of 2018. While there, we scuba dived to survey fish and coral species on several reefs and took note of any disease or acidification affecting the corals. About 20% of the corals we saw were either infected or completely dead from acidification or disease. All of the information we found proved very useful since it allowed us to have a better grasp of the amount of disease on different reefs and how it was affecting the fish species. I then worked as as part of a team to plant staghorn corals using coral trees. I hammered large metal rods into the seafloor and attached smaller rods to the sides of the main one. Those smaller rods then became the scaffolding onto which we could attach the small staghorn corals, allowing them to grow undisturbed.

I also looked for ways that I could help the local areas, focused on protecting our marine habitats. During Mardi Gras, a large number of beads were disposed of in Davis Island. These beads would be deadly to sea creatures if ingested and if humans ate those animals we too would get sick. I was in scuba gear underwater bagging it and sending it to the surface, where my other teammates on paddleboards moved these beads. I recently created a blog that addresses issues from red tide to overfishing and ocean acidification. I have used my blog as a way to help raise awareness of the causes of red tide, its devastating impacts on marine habitats, and how each of us can combat it. By spreading the word about the causes of red tide, which many people know little to nothing about, we can be a driving force for changes to be made in dealing with the algal blooms, such as incentivizing farmers to lessen their nutrient-filled runoff. Supporting organizations who are working for a way to fight against red tide, such as START, is also a great way to help. Using red tide reporting apps, people can report any strange findings related to red tide. Something we can all do is conserve water. It may seem small, but conserving more water could lead to less of it filled with harmful nutrients from finding its way to the ocean and feeding the algal blooms. Finally, you can contact your legislators. Although it seems improbable for a legislator to respond back to you, my experience has shown that if enough awareness is raised about red tide, there will likely be a positive response from legislators to help improve water quality in our coastal waters.

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