Clean Ocean Access continues work to make RI shorelines clean and accessible

Middletown-based organization founded by surfers seeks supporters

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It was a cold winter day in 2006 when Dave McLaughlin and his friend finished surfing at the Newport break, Ruggles. When they emerged from the water, they were met with the frustrating news that they could no longer park there. Such restrictions were not rare, as public ocean access parking had been, and continued to be, at risk. The following summer, beach closures and water quality issues struck the area, and McLaughlin and several friends knew they had to address these issues. “We chose to form our own group,” McLaughlin says. Based on Aquidneck Island, they founded grassroots organization Clean Ocean Access (COA).

What started from a group of surfers and concerned individuals became a highly organized nonprofit in 2014 that continued to build. McLaughlin, the executive director of COA, describes how the organization has grown into a diverse community. “Today, I would say we’re an organization of people who care about the environment and have a connection to the ocean – but that connection to the ocean could range from anything like someone who has a childhood memory to someone who fishes or surfs.”

The nonprofit’s name is a testament to their vision: a clean, healthy ocean that is accessible to all. Their mission, which paves the way to this vision, is to inspire and educate the community to take action through environmentally responsible behaviors, particularly three important goals: eliminating marine debris, improving coastal water quality, and protecting and preserving shoreline access. To accomplish this, McLaughlin says, “We put a lot of focus on analytics, data, reporting, and processing because the analytics tell the story about whether or not things are improving. We also put a lot of focus on community.” Additionally, COA has delved into innovative technology to address marine debris, and is vigilant about monitoring public ocean access in the area.

In partnership with others, COA has adopted various rights of way on Aquidneck Island, which provides public shoreline access. “Adopting a right of way introduces a responsibility on behalf of the entity adopting it that says we will put forth efforts and be stewards and monitor this right of way, and we will bring to attention any issues with this right of way,” McLaughlin states, never forgetting the access issue that sparked the creation of COA back in 2006. “A friend’s mom once told me: ‘The environmental battle that you fight today and you win is probably the battle you’ll fight tomorrow, but the battle that you lose today you’ve lost forever.’ So, the reality is, you’ve got to keep fighting for it. You’ve got to remain vigilant.”

There are various ways people can help through COA, such as donating, getting involved in cleanups and initiatives, and spreading the word. Their website and social media accounts provide information and opportunities, and supporters can sign up for newsletters that provide current concerns and information. “Whatever good habit or single step you can take, do that, and with time try to do something else,” McLaughlin says. “We’re all connected to the ocean somehow.” 

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