Working For The Love Of The Ocean

As chairman of the Kaua’i chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, Robert Zelkovsky is dedicated to keeping our waters and beaches pristine

The ocean is Robert Zelkovsky’s playground, which is why he works so hard to preserve it.

“I love the ocean for my recreation,” he says during a recent interview at Lydgate Beach Park as waves roll onto the shoreline in the distance.

The scene of the interview is beautiful, but look closer and it is difficult to ignore discarded cigarette butts, pieces of plastic, empty food containers and beer bottles scattered about the beach.

It’s a scene Zelkovsky sadly is used to seeing. He spends much of his free time picking up trash on beaches around the island.

“We want to get it off the beach and out,” he says. Litter is not only an eyesore, but it also is detrimental to marine life such as fish, seabirds and the reef. “If there is a high tide, it will get pulled back into ocean,” he explains.

Zelkovsky, owner of Bamboo Moon Video, has been a volunteer with the environmental organization Surfrider Foundation, Kaua’i chapter for four years, and recently was selected as its chairman. Once a month, the foundation leads beach cleanups, and since becoming a volunteer Zelkovsky has attended nearly every one. The need is particularly critical now as tsunami debris from Japan arrives on Kaua’i’s shorelines. Endless bits of white- and blue-colored microplastics are lining the beaches – pieces small enough to be swallowed easily by any number of Hawaii fish and birds.

Zelkovsky was particularly horrified in January when he came upon a path of the microplastics some 2 feet wide and 100 feet long.

Another concern is declining fish populations. At Kauapea Beach, for example, Zelkovsky says he used to see an abundance of fish at the reef.

“It would look like an aquarium,” he says. Now, there are hardly any fish remaining.

He also used to regularly find opihi around the island.

“Now you have to climb down a canyon and go into the surf to get opihi,” he laments.

All of these factors indicate to Zelkovsky that the current state of the ocean is not healthy. The New York native witnessed the decline of the Atlantic Ocean’s health as a child. Pollution and debris were among the many stressors placed upon those waters.

Those same stressors now also have taken hold on Kaua’i.

Surfrider Foundation tests the water quality at popular beaches around the island to spread awareness regarding the health of the island’s watersheds. By publishing the statistics on a regular basis, the nonprofit’s Blue Water Task Force informs others whether or not the water is safe for swimming.

During the first few months that Zelkovsky volunteered with Surfrider, there was heavy rain on Kaua’i and eight of the 12 beaches were deemed unsafe the following day.

“That was really eye-opening for me and that really upped my enthusiasm for Surfrider,” he recalls.

The experience surprised him, as it was hard to believe the waters on such an isolated island could be so unclean.

“If it wasn’t for Surfrider publishing it, potentially people wouldn’t know,” he says.

Visitors swim in these brown and murky waters only to get hit by a cold or the flu.

“They’ve actually gotten hit by bacteria,” Zelkovsky notes. The bacteria’s source is partly excrement from animals such as cows and pigs. However, it is still largely generated by cesspools that overflow into the watersheds when it rains.

While being able to inform others of the water quality is rewarding, contributing to a clean beach or removing fishing gear with nonprofit’s Net Patrol is the most gratifying aspect of volunteer work for Zelkovsky.

“Sometimes it’s unbelievable how a net gets removed,” he says, explaining the tedious process of cutting through the gnarled pieces and pulling out bits of nets from between rocks, which requires the help of several people.

Something else Zelkovsky is proud to be a part of is Surfrider’s environmental advocacy.

In recent years, the organization testified in support of the plastic bag ban. During a beach cleanup a year prior to the ban, Zelkovsky asked volunteers to keep track of the number of plastic bags picked up. The total was more than 50. The following year, after the ban took effect, there were no plastic bags collected.

In an effort to increase membership and continue spreading ocean awareness, Surfrider Foundation, Kaua’i chapter is sponsoring a “friendraiser.”

“I think a lot of people want to help, but they just don’t know how,” says Zelkovsky.

The benefit is set for June 21 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Nawiliwili Yacht Club. There will be food and drinks, live music and a silent auction of primarily ocean art. Price of admission is a $25 yearly Surfrider Foundation membership. Memberships also can be purchased June 20, International Surfing Day, for $20 through the Kaua’i chapter’s website, where purchasers will receive a yearlong membership, magazine, T-shirt and other goodies, as well as free entry to Friday’s event with their receipt.

“I want the oceans and streams to be clean, healthy and freely accessible for generations to come,” says Zelkovsky.

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