Five Questions With: Dave McLaughlin

Dave McLaughlin is co-founder and executive director of Clean Ocean Access, a nonprofit established in 2006 on Aquidneck Island after surfers grew concerned about water quality around the island and access to the ocean.

One of the group’s more visible initiatives is buying marina trash skimmers for waterfront areas. Clean Ocean Access recently held its sixth annual Swim to Skim fundraiser.

PBN: How long has Clean Ocean Access been installing marina trash skimmers, and where are there skimmers located now and where will the program expand in coming years?

MCLAUGHLIN: COA installed two skimmers in 2016 at Perrotti Park in Newport in partnership with the city of Newport with funding support from 11th Hour Racing. In 2017, we installed units at Fort Adams State Park [in] Newport and New England Boatworks in Portsmouth. In 2018, we installed two units in Baltimore. In 2019, we installed units at New Bedford and Providence, and most recently in Fall River. We are planning to install a unit in Stamford, Conn., this fall and an additional unit in New England in 2020.

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PBN: How effective has the program been so far? For instance, amounts of trash collected. 

MCLAUGHLIN: The units are highly effective at removing floating debris and improving water quality. Since inception, the total installation suite has removed over 30,000 pounds of marine debris, and that includes the smallest piece of foam to thousands of cigarette butts.

PBN: How does your group differ from Save The Bay?

MCLAUGHLIN: COA is small and Save The Bay is big! COA has a team of four full-time resources and Save The Bay has many more! Save The Bay has a geographical focus on the entire Narragansett Bay watershed, and that extends into Massachusetts all the way to Worcester, so they have a huge footprint. COA has a geographical focus on Aquidneck Island and recently we’ve expanded our efforts to Newport County. Save The Bay has a professional team of lobbyists, scientists and educators who do the actual work. Clean Ocean Access has a small team with similar expertise, but our work focuses on citizen science and grassroots activism. We work at the local level and build community friendships and focus on ocean activities as the catalyst for our call to action. We work with Save The Bay and lots of other nonprofits on common efforts such as stormwater and green infrastructure, and most recently on tackling plastics.

PBN: Aside from donating to your group, what’s the best way for an individual to do his or her part to keep the ocean clean? 

MCLAUGHLIN: Our lives on land are very dependent on a healthy ocean, and our actions on land directly impact ocean health. Being aware of the choices we are making each day and trying to avoid unnecessary waste and single-use material, as part of becoming a good steward of our lands and seas. We live in a time of immense convenience, but we need to be aware of the effort and difficulty that comes with it. And finally, we need to enjoy the ocean and all the fun activities and share those experiences with other people. Whether it’s surfing or sailing or walking along the shoreline, it is these activities that form community and awareness and become the source of passion for taking good care of the environment.

PBN: Shortly before Clean Ocean Access’ annual Swim to Skim fundraiser in Newport Harbor on Aug. 25, 10,000 gallons of untreated sewage was released into the harbor. What was your reaction to that incident? Demoralizing or motivating, and why?

MCLAUGHLIN: The sewage spill happened about a mile north of the Newport Harbor, but that didn’t change our approach toward dealing with it. We immediately put in place a daily monitoring program at locations close to the spill, north of the swim and south of the swim. The reason we do these events is equally to raise funds and to raise awareness and so we remained focused on both outcomes, as well as swimmer safety. We are very familiar with the impact of [combined sewer overflow] and [sanitary sewer overflow] events on water quality, so a few days after the spill I was accepting that sign-ups were slow, but we knew the water would be clean. As it turns out, we had a great event with over 60 registrants with a new course, we put safety – water and swimmer logistics – at the forefront, and I think it worked out great for everyone involved.

William Hamilton is PBN staff writer and special projects editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at

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