Brian Vest, founder-president of the Conch Republic Marine Army, a nonprofit organization created to restore Florida Keys marine habitats, has taken more than 4,000 volunteers to the Keys’ backcountry.
For the last five years, nearly every Saturday groups of eight to 10 volunteers commit to a five-hour experience on a Carolina skiff to clear debris washed up on remote, uninhabited islands in the Lower Keys.
The trips-with-a-purpose are not all work, however — there’s time to explore a sandbar, swim and sun, make new friends and enjoy a free lunch and cold beverages.
Private groups made up of staffers of resorts, restaurants, real estate firms, bars and a national youth organization have participated in Vest’s cleanups as team-building missions.
“There’s some serious bonding that goes on. For some, this is a passion,” Vest said. “For me, it’s a calling.”
Vest, a native of Virginia who was weary of frequent business travel and the corporate life after operating his marine construction business, moved to Big Pine Key in 2017.
Currently, the Conch Republic Marine Army is partnering with a Seattle-based organization, Net Your Problem, to recycle old fishing gear.
Nearly 6 tons of decayed fishing trapline polypropylene rope, gathered in the Keys, are to be shipped to Denmark to be pelletized. The pellets, Vest hopes, can be used to make stone crab traps.
Vest has also acquired a second vessel, scheduled to be operational by April, to accommodate 22 volunteers. Through fundraising efforts, he hopes to establish operations in Key West and Marathon as well.
A future goal is to “Plant a Million Mangroves” through the planting of mangrove seedlings by volunteers.
To date, Vest’s organization has collected more than 211 tons of debris including trash from 43 miles of Keys shoreline.
His message to visitors and residents alike? “Come join us.”
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
Brian Vest: In 2015, my wife Laura and I rented a home for a month on Sugarloaf Key. We made great friends in the neighborhood and returned for two months the following year. We decided to resettle in the Keys. We chose Big Pine Key.
KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
BV: The water. We love fishing. The amazing colors, snorkeling, fishing, the abundance of amazing birds. The weather isn't bad either.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys' natural world?
BV: My father, who always appreciated the water. Sailing nearly every weekend as a child connected me to Chesapeake Bay deeply. Canoeing and camping were a big part of my childhood and taught me about the outdoors.
KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
BV: Our efforts bring about a sense of community and the Keys are a special kind of resilient people. We just put our shoulders into it. A few volunteers at first, and we grew into an army.
KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
BV: Dedication to cleaning and restoring every mile of Florida Keys shoreline at least once. This is a lifestyle choice: every day we consider what we can do to make a difference. It’s too easy to look the other way, but I'm on a mission. All the critters of the ocean, birds and mammals call that habitat home. It's our job to give it back to them.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
BV: The people who join us. Their smiles and feeling of accomplishment just moves you forward. A great many people from all over the world care, and we have an obligation to keep the progress going.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
BV: We're saving critters that call the mangrove habitat home. Mangroves, grass flats and the reef form a three-legged leg stool. Mangroves are at the heart. Cleaning them up and planting new mangroves is the clear path to recovery.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
BV: Don't give up. You can move a single mountain one spoonful at a time. Recruit others, give them a spoon and you start moving mountains.
KT: What's your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
BV: Taking a boat ride at sunset out into a shallow bay. Turning off the motor and just listening to an entire world saying goodnight.
Brian Vest's organization, the Conch Republic Marine Army, has collected more than 211 tons of debris including trash from 43 miles of Keys shoreline.
Vest and his wife, Laura, fell in love with the Lower Keys after visiting in 2015. They moved to Big Pine Key in 2017.