By Lisa D. Mickey
Independence Day is a festive time. It’s a mid-year summer month when Americans celebrate our freedom.
As a child, I enjoyed 4th of July fireworks, particularly over baseball stadiums after games when the pops, fizzles and booms echoed off the outfield advertising billboards — always concluding with the grand finale and more sensory stimulation than any child stoked on soda and ballpark snacks could possibly absorb.
That annual celebration is different now for me as an adult – especially as an adult who lives in a coastal city and knows a few more things about what shares our beaches with us at this time of year. I’ve come to realize that seemingly friendly fireworks competitions are not so friendly to our shorelines.
As an adult, I now know that the lights and sounds of fireworks scare animals, force nesting arboreal birds to shelter their young under extended wings, and sometimes cause extreme emotional discomfort for our military veterans.
I also know that at this time of year, our beaches are busy with mother sea turtles crawling to shore to dig nests and deposit eggs for the next generation. Beaches are busy enough, but imagine trying to find a spot on the sand during nesting season that is not occupied by festive foot traffic or littered with mounds of singed cardboard, foil and plastic pieces that have fallen from exploded fireworks.
Shorebirds are already challenged by loss of nesting sites and the impossibility of sharing barely disguised nests scraped in the sand alongside humans, pet dogs and predators. When these shorebird eggs hatch, the fuzzy ping-pong-ball-size precocial chicks begin running and foraging on their own. They are hard to see and easy to crush as they emerge into this world surrounded by instant obstacles. Can you imagine the terror of hatching out into thundering sounds, flashing lights and trying to dodge so many feet?
But aside from the creatures that must navigate our festivity, what about the leftover debris on the beaches?
For at least the last dozen years, I have had a “date with the beach” on July 5. Sometimes I have gone alone and sometimes I have recruited others to help pick up so much trash left behind on the beach that is generated by fireworks each year.
Armed with buckets and wearing rubber gloves, we have picked through the sand for tiny pieces of colored plastic, tinfoil, exploded nickel-size cardboard circles, plastic tubes and plastic rocket points that momentarily brought joy to many before burning and falling into the July 4th litter pile on our beaches.
Beachside condominiums, restaurants and even private citizens have enjoyed elaborate competitions with their firework displays each year – hoping to out-blast each other on this night. City officials have seemingly turned a blind eye to their actions, but worse yet, have not required those participants to clean up their own mess.
So, the trash generated by these fireworks lands on the beaches and eventually washes into the ocean when the tide comes in. Even when citizens come to the beach the next morning to try to remove some of the debris, considerable damage has been done and much of that festivity has already found its way into the Atlantic Ocean.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer and I’m certainly not poo-pooing our desire and right to celebrate America’s Independence Day. I am, however, hoping that more of us who love our ocean, beaches and creatures that live here, will find other ways to celebrate.
We can use music, laser light shows (remember those displays you project on your house at Christmas?) and soap bubbles. We can march, dance, sing and eat, drink and be merry. We could use sparklers and then properly dispose them. Or if you must use fireworks, clean up immediately following your personal pyrotechnics display.
My point is, I know more than I used to know. I have adapted. I can change my behavior to protect this amazingly beautiful place that I love and now call home.
And while I wish the City of New Smyrna Beach would write tickets and hold the fireworks competitors responsible for cleaning up their own coastal debris, I also know that not everyone feels the need or responsibility to preserve and protect. Some will simply get in their cars and board planes the next day.
That leaves the rest of us here with the task of doing something. Anything. No, we didn’t make the mess, but the mess doesn’t go away without our help.
Here’s a simple request: Make your own date with the beach on July 5!
Bring your bucket. Bring your willingness to make the world a better place. Bring your spirit to pitch in and join MDC staff, volunteers and other residents to help protect our precious coastal ecosystem. Hope to see you on the beach.