Why this father-son team is "trash fishing" in the Detroit River

On a sunny Sunday morning earlier this summer, Tom Nardone and his son Mark hopped in a boat they purchased for $1,200 off Craigslist and headed out on the Detroit River. But instead of fishing for the usual silver bass and yellow perch, they were looking for silver beer cans and yellow birthday balloons. They were trash fishing.

The father and son team, along with a handful of other volunteers, have been navigating the waters surrounding Zug Island on the Detroit River near Delray picking up plastic and other trash floating in the surf. In addition to the large bags of water bottles and styrofoam bait boxes they have collected during their excursions, the group has pulled a water ski, a construction barrel, two tires complete with wheels, and a coast guard buoy out of the water. 

It’s estimated that 10,000 tons of plastic garbage enter the Great Lakes every year. Nardone is trying to start a movement to clean it up.

In addition to the area near Delray, the volunteers gather garbage along the coastline of Belle Isle, the east Detroit canal systems, the St. Jean boat launch, and have even trash fished around Mud and Grassy Islands, part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. 

Nardone is no stranger to attempting seemingly quixotic tasks to beautify the city. The Birmingham, Michigan resident is the founder of the Detroit Mower Gang, a DIY group of volunteers that mow the grass in abandoned and overgrown Detroit parks. 

He credits his 11-year-old son Mark with the inspiration for the marine-based clean-up effort. "I used to go to the Mower Gang with my dad and there’s a lot of trash on the land," Mark says. "But I saw there was a lot more trash in the water so I wanted to come up with a way to clear that out for the fish." 


Tom and Mark Nardone travel around in their boat near Delray

Nardone is quick to forget his failures, which he says are numerous, and isn't deterred by them. In the early days of the Detroit Mower Gang, he and his crew started a rehab of the Dorais Park Velodrome, a canted concrete cycling track in Detroit's near east side. 

The track, finally free of weeds and overgrown grass, proved popular with adults. But Nardone has always concentrated on improving conditions for children. So he started a community garden in the center of the velodrome, planting sunflowers and watermelons. "We were going to provide some healthy food that the kids in the area will eat." he says of his thoughts at the time. 

They grew 70 watermelons, but no other volunteers showed up to help on the harvest day. The next year, Greening of Detroit joined the effort, but neighborhood residents were resistant to eating the "weird colored beets and kale," according to Nardone. And the growing of watermelons, a frequent symbol in racist iconography, created even more tension. He eventually abandoned the project.   

Meanwhile the Mower Gang kept chugging along, adding dozens of members, and mowing hundreds of parks in the eight summers since its inception. The group has garnered copious local and nation media attention, even receiving a visit from food writer Anthony Bourdain. 

This has given Nardone a front row seat to the progress Detroit has made coming out the Great Recession. Finding city parks in need of care has become harder and the Gang has turned to mowing playgrounds at abandoned Detroit public schools. 

"A lot of the playgrounds where we were working we don't have to be cleaned up anymore," he says. "They look great."

Jessica Spiess plays with a balloon she fished out of the water
To  Nardone, one of the biggest improvements is in removal of blighted houses. "When we started there would be abandoned homes everywhere … It wasn't uncommon for there to be a playground, and four or five abandoned, burned-out, incredibly dangerous looking, trash-strewn homes right it. And now that does not happen."

Charlie Spiess brought his 7-year-old daughter, Jessica, on his second weekend of trash fishing. It was only Spiess' second time driving a boat. They traveled around in a foldable Port-A-Boat  Spiess got for free from a friend. Jessica sat perched on the bow wielding a pair of grabbers while Charlie navigated through the murky waters. Maneuvering into eddies and reed-covered shores, they slowly collected water bottles, styrofoam bait boxes, and the plethora of flotsam lining the canals around Zug Island. 

But for Jessica, the day was half river cleanup half treasure hunt. She was enamored with an old bottle of glitter and a cigarette lighter, carefully putting them aside for later examination. "I really like picking up the trash," she said. But when asked out her favorite part of the day she said, "just spending time with my dad."

The group is growing slowly, but growing nonetheless. Several Mower Gang members are putting together boats in the hopes of heading out in the waning warm months.  

Unloading the boat after a trash fishing outing
Nardone has started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to buy trash grabbers, gasoline, garbage bags, and doughnuts for volunteers. A $19 donation will get you a bracelet made out of the construction barrel they pulled out of the river; $5 will get you first pick of the doughnuts during trash fishing events; and $99 will get you a ride in Tom and Mark's boat. 

Ultimately, Nardone hopes this model can be replicated beyond the murky waters where the Rouge and Detroit rivers meet. "I would like 'trash fishing' to be an online virtual thing where people post pictures of the silly stuff they pull out of the rivers," says  Nardone. "This is more of a universal problem." 

In the meantime, he'll be posting on his website and plucking up trash out of the river, one piece at a time.

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Photos by Anthony Lanzilote

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