By DENISE CATHEY | Staff Photographer

BROWNSVILLE — For almost an hour, Sabrina Perez has been sifting through the vegetation dotting the sand dunes on Boca Chica Beach removing small pieces of plastic and Styrofoam washed up during high tide and past storm surges. The 27-year-old environmental science student and Brownsville native, is just one of many volunteers to come out on Saturday morning for the beach cleanup hosted by RGV Fishing Area and Waterway Cleanups in partnership with SPI Beach Cleanups and Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program.

“Honestly the trash bothers me, but what bothers me more is people’s habits at home. A lot of the things we see here if people just changed a few things we’d be using less plastic and especially Styrofoam. I got here and I’ve been picking up Styrofoam pretty much since the beginning,” Perez said.

This beach cleanup is one of many community-oriented cleanups put together by Richard Hitchcox, managing director of RGV Fishing Area and Waterway Cleanups since 2018.

An avid fisherman, Hitchcox got the inspiration for the event from fishing trips with his son.

“We like to fish, but we don’t fish in dirty places,” Hitchcox said.

Hitchcox sees the cleanups as a way to kill two birds with one stone. Fishermen get a clean space to ply their craft and it helps local species by providing a safer environment to feed and raise their young.

Ramon De La Fuente climbs up into the back of his pickup truck to throw dozens of bags of trash collected by volunteers into the dumpster for disposal Saturday morning during the RGV Fishing Area and Waterway Cleanups’ beach cleanup at Boca Chica Beach. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“Most of what we are picking up out here is plastic. If you see a little beak bite mark in the plastic, that’s where a sea turtle bit. If they ingest it and swallow it they cannot digest it and it will end up killing the sea turtles. The same thing happens to fish,” Hitchcox said.

Stephanie Bilodeau, a bird biologist with Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, knows firsthand the importance of having a clean environment for local species on Boca Chica Beach.

“I’m out here because I do research out on this beach for birds and I do some monitoring out here. The trash is really detrimental to the birds that are nesting out here, but also to the birds that are foraging on the water. They’ll eat the plastic by accident and it’ll kill them,” Bilodeau said.

In addition to providing a clean environment for the public, Hitchcox also took special pains to make sure that his volunteers had a safe environment to work in. Due to the concerns about transmission of COVID-19, Hitchcox had face masks available for those who didn’t bring their own along with hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. He also sanitized all the cleaning equipment provided for volunteers beforehand.

In addition volunteers were asked to stay with their group or family and only clean in sections of the beach where they could be isolated from other groups.

The event attendees were a mixture of avid fishermen, Cub Scouts, Texas Master Naturalists, local cleanup groups, members of the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society, along with several other local organizations and family groups.

Sabrina Perez picks up small pieces of plastic and Styrofoam washed up in the sand dunes Saturday morning during the RGV Fishing Area and Waterway Cleanups’ beach cleanup at Boca Chica Beach.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“Everyone is doing it for different reasons, but it’s great that we can all come together and clean up this area and everyone realizes how important this is,” Bilodeau said.

In total, Hitchcox expected around 70 to 90 people to come out to his event.

“That is a lot, but with this much beach we can still stay socially distanced,” Hitchcox said.

Even though Hitchcox approaches his event from the perspective of a fisherman, he can’t help but enjoy the effect he sees once an area is left a little cleaner than he found it.

“If you look at the egrets and the other birds that are out here, they look happy when the trash is gone,” Hitchcox said.