ST. PETE CATALYST: Local Water Warriors team up for Ian victims, ecosystems

ST. PETE CATALYST: Local Water Warriors team up for Ian victims, ecosystems

By: Mark Parker

A burgeoning national beverage company is boosting a local nonprofit’s unique recovery and restoration efforts in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Charleston-based Island Brands USA, a lifestyle beverage company that offers premium beer, craft spirits and ready-to-drink cocktails, recently announced it is donating 1% of its Florida sales revenue to St. Petersburg’s Water Warrior Alliance (WWA).

The Alliance utilizes a network of debris divers to improve ecosystems and collect critical marine data and is active in communities from Tampa Bay to the Florida Keys. For the last month, the nonprofit and its founder, Jenna Byrne, have focused on helping people and waterways devastated by Hurricane Ian.

“Eighty percent of debris that hits the waterway sinks, and wind-driven debris is the number one way trash goes in the water,” said Byrne.

“So, if you take those two facts and put them together, any local shoreline there is going to be overwhelmed with debris that’s contaminating the water.”

That contamination is apparent from space, as satellite imagery has highlighted the massive amount of debris-filled storm runoff that drained into the Gulf of Mexico following the storm. The University of South Florida and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s (FWC) collaborative red tide maps have subsequently shown high levels of Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide, from Lee County to the mouth of Tampa Bay in the following weeks.


A satellite photo shows contaminated runoff from Hurricane Ian entering the Gulf of Mexico. Photo courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

In addition to diving for debris and collecting water samples, Byrne deploys Water Goats around stormwater outfalls to collect trash before it enters delicate ecosystems. The system consists of floating surface nets that trap litter, and Byrne said her team designed a couple that mitigates red tide.

However, Byrne noted WWA is a small organization and said Island Brands’ support helps “turbocharge” cleanup efforts and supply food and necessities to people facing a long road to recovery.

She is well aware of how long it can take for people affected by a devastating storm to regain a sense of normalcy. A Florida native, Byrne also lived in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.

While there, someone introduced her to a cavitation cleaner, a technological system that separates barnacles from the bottoms of boats without releasing paint filled with heavy metals. That led Byrne to begin testing water samples for those toxic metals.

“And I ended up finding tons of microplastics and junk,” she said. “So, instead of doing more citizen science reporting like a lot of my partners had already been doing, I decided to take action and remove marine debris.”


Byrne deploys Water Goats around stormwater outfalls to collect trash before it enters delicate ecosystems.

Byrne returned to St. Petersburg and launched WWA in February 2017. The Alliance now includes entities like Keep Pinellas Beautiful, Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the Cities of St. Petersburg and Madeira Beach.

The organization, explained Byrne, takes a multifaceted approach to debris removal. She often hosts debris diving events modeled after fishing tournaments.

“Depending on the region we’re at, we actually source a local artist with those,” she added. “Because we upcycle all of our debris, and so an artist tells us what kind of materials they need for a sculpture or display. After each tournament … we install a cool art piece, which is fun.”

Byrne relayed that proceeds from the tournaments benefit WWA’s children’s programming and camps.

She said there are at least another six months of trash removal in those areas, and noted people in Louisiana lived in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers for years after Hurricane Katrina. In addition to marine cleanups, Byrne has organized food drives and fundraisers to help support her neighbors to the south – many who rely on the local marine economy and several she calls partners.

Byrne explained that proceeds from Island Brands, recently recognized by the Inc. as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S., will support those efforts and an area Ocean Sweep Trash Collection Tournament in the spring. She said that the partnership stems from the two organizations’ involvement in the 1% for the Planet program, where companies pledge to donate at least 1% of annual sales to environmental causes.

“We first brewed up the idea for Island Brands during a trip to Key West,” said Scott Hansen, co-founder and CEO, in a statement. “Florida is near and dear to our hearts. Giving back to help residents and communities affected by Hurricane Ian was a no-brainer to us.”


A volunteer diver shows off debris she recovered in along the coast of St. Pete.

WWA, said Byrne, was one of the Florida groups that aligned with the company’s mission and brand, and they began formulating a partnership over the last month. She expressed her gratitude for the support needed to increase the nonprofit’s impact.

The tourism and hospitality industry, noted Byrne, is decimated along the Southwest Florida coast. She plans to work with as many local groups as possible to help restore those residents’ livelihoods.

“Because they would do the same for us,” added Byrne. “The Gulf Coast has to stay together. We are all like-minded individuals here; we love our state.”