Earth’s oceans shelter more than a million species, employ millions of people and feed billions more. Their complex ecosystems increasingly face critical challenges, including acidification, overfishing and pollution. Inspiring us all, youths nationwide are stepping up with bold, creative actions benefiting present and future generations to show us how we too, can do our part.
Sean Russell, 24, of Englewood, Florida, was exposed to ocean wonders in junior marine conservation summer camps and 4-H programs. Volunteering with Mote Marine Laboratory’s dolphin research program, in Sarasota, Russell was struck by how improperly discarded fishing line entangled and killed dolphins and other wildlife. At 16, he launched the Stow It—Don’t Throw It Project to promote portable receptacles made from repurposed tennis ball containers for anglers to stash used fishing line for later safe disposal on shore. More than 21,000 containers have been distributed nationwide to date.
While earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, Russell launched the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit to harness youth enthusiasm for related issues. Six summits have convened hundreds of concerned young change-makers and adult professionals. “Young people learn about current threats to marine life and become inspired by peers sharing ideas and successes,” says Russell. Planning and skill-building sessions fuel action, often assisted by microgrants to help kick-start community projects.
Russell is also involved with the nonprofit EarthEcho International, which activates young leaders through peer-to-peer networks. One recent campaign, 3T4E, encouraged youth worldwide to pick up three pieces of trash on November 1 and document their efforts. Nearly 2 million social media impressions later, they’ve reached youth in 24 states, in 19 countries and on six continents, according to Executive Director Mia DeMezza.
Founded by siblings Philippe and Alexandra Cousteau, the Washington, D.C., EarthEcho shares service learning stories that record steps young people are taking to mitigate local waterway issues. In a virtual classroom field trip series, they can explore issues such as oceanic dead zones and acidification through dynamic multimedia presentations. “These young people are going to inherit the problems we’ve created, and deserve a seat at the table,” says DeMezza.
Given the opportunity, youth can play a key role in conservation, research and policy making for Earth’s oceans. “I look at youth not as leaders of the future, but leaders of today,” says Russell.
Daniela Fernandez, 23, is one of the youth leaders working to bridge the generational divide on ocean conservation issues. An undergraduate at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., she was invited to a 2013 United Nations (UN) meeting to address the state of the world’s oceans. When she inquired if they had social media outlets to share their discussions, she discovered they did not. The 2016 Christopher Benchley Ocean Award winner relates, “I returned to campus with a sense of urgency about the issues I learned about, which led me to start a nonprofit to connect Millennials with the oceans.”
The resulting Sustainable Oceans Alliance (SOA) has since hosted three global ocean summits with participants from more than 30 colleges and universities, learning directly from leaders in government, science, business and policy. Summit-watch parties at embassies around the world enabled Millennials to submit questions and comments online. Consequently, Secretary of State John Kerry’s office partnered with SOA to incorporate a youth component in the state department’s 2016 Our Ocean Conference.
The SOA, recognized by the United Nations as a game-changing initiative, has catalyzed 30 chapters on U.S. campuses, with plans to expand to Britain, Chile and Spain. Actionable steps include advocating for college curricula on ocean health. Already, the alliance has helped sway global policy, gathering 30,000 signatures petitioning that ocean conservation be included in UN sustainable development goals. It also mobilized youth advocating for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, America’s first marine monument (measuring a bit larger than Yellowstone National Park), off Cape Cod, created by President Obama in 2016.
Russell and Fernandez agree that rallying around solutions is key to engaging youth and adults alike. “You can talk about the problems all day long, but it’s solutions that inspire people to take action,” says Russell.
Fernandez adds, “Often, people feel helpless in the face of big issues, but if you give them a simple way to help, they will get behind it.”
Connect with freelance writer April Thompson, in Washington, D.C., at AprilWrites.com.