By Jessica Tuggle
TREASURE COAST - Justin Riney of Vero Beach has played in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon since childhood. Last week he literally stood up to raise awareness for the aquatic east coast gem.
Mr. Riney organized Stand Up for the Indian River Lagoon to bring the environmental, ecological and economic issues facing the body of water to the forefront and he did it by stand-up paddle boarding 165 miles down the entire lagoon.
He pushed off in Ponce Inlet on Oct. 11 and completed his trip on Oct. 20 at the Jupiter Lighthouse, making various stops along the way to greet supporters and friends.
The Indian River Lagoon is the most bio-diverse estuary in North America and faces constant challenges to its survival because of pesticides, fertilizer and other pollutants killing the sea grasses and destroying the whole circle of life contained in the water, Mr. Riney said.
When Mr. Riney stopped in Sebastian on Oct. 16, he had counted a total of 62 dolphin and 32 manatees during his voyage.
Mr. Riney is the founder and CEO of Mother Ocean, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, and the project leader of Expedition Florida 500.
Mother Ocean is a tool to connect people with others interested in the environmental health of the ocean and the bodies of water that feed it.
Expedition Florida 500 is a special project that will run throughout the year in 2013, the 500th anniversary since Juan Ponce de Leon came to Florida. As part of the project, Florida's coastline, waterways and aquatic ecosystems will be explored to highlight the importance of stewardship in those areas, according to the Mother Ocean website.
Participants will camp and airboat through the Everglades, collect data, map out areas on the water, host cleanups, canoe, kayak and paddle all around Florida's fresh, brackish and salt water areas.
Under the leadership of Mr. Riney, Mother Ocean has organized a weekly clean-up hour every Saturday that has international participation.
Using social media and technology to spread the word, clean-up activities occur on beaches, rivers, lakes and waterways from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Mr. Riney has grave concerns about sections of the lagoon that are dead and dying.
"From Sebastian Inlet to south of the Vero Beach causeway there is no sea grass whatsoever. It's a complete desert," Mr. Riney said.
"There are no fish, no birds, nothing. And south of the Fort Pierce Inlet, there are loads of birds and other marine life. It's like night and day," he said.
Sea grasses are the foundation for life in the lagoon, experts say.
Sea grasses help clean the water, serve as fish nurseries and are a food source for larger marine life.
Scientists shouldn't be the only ones interested in the biology of the lagoon and its health because the lagoon is a critical part of what makes the east coast a sought after place to visit, which in turn, helps build up the economy, Mr. Riney said.
"We've got to support, as a local community, our lagoon," said Mr. Riney, who is not a scientist.
For more information about Mr. Riney's mission and organization, visit www.motherocean.org.