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This Boot Camp Trains Young People to Fight Plastic Pollution

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Hrilina Ramrakhiani and other participants take part in an activity called "Love Letters to the Sea". Emy Kane / Lonely Whale

By Shaima Shamdeen

The impact of young people's activism has not gone unnoticed. From 16-year-old Jamie Margolin leading the upcoming Zero Hour youth climate marches in Washington, DC to the lawsuit Juliana v. United States filed on behalf of 21 youths suing the government for failing to address climate change—youth are leading the way on climate action.


And climate change isn't the only big environmental problem that youth are stepping up to address. They're also asserting leadership around the issue of plastic pollution.

The Ocean Heroes Bootcamp in New Orleans brought together nearly 1,000 youth activists ages 11 to 18 in early June. The camp gave attendees tools and knowledge to build new campaigns aimed at reducing plastic. It was organized by youth activists in collaboration with 10 national environmental organizations including the Captain Planet Foundation and Lonely Whale.

During the camp, participants were organized into teams, or squads. Each squad had a youth activist and an adult from a partnering environmental organization who led the team in planning and presenting campaign strategies to reduce single-use plastic straws in their home communities. Youth squad leaders also helped train the participants in campaign organizing strategies.

The production of plastics has dramatically increased over the past 50 years, according to a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014. The report estimates that at least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the ocean each year.

"All the data shows that if we don't stop this now and don't execute serious policies, then we are going to have surpassed the point where we can manage the plastic pollution," said Leesa Carter, executive director of the Captain Planet Foundation, a lead organizer of the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp.

At the rate that plastic is being produced today, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports, there may be more plastic than fish, by weight, in the ocean by 2050.

At the boot camp, youth and mentors led workshops and activities to build skills in things like clear and confident communication and how to pitch a campaign. The camp also gave youth the opportunity to collaborate internationally. Seven international on-site locations, including Vancouver, Canada, and Nairobi, Kenya, participated in the boot camp through a virtual summit organized by Ocean Wise, which took place concurrently with the on-site event in New Orleans.

"We've had so many youth activating around the plastic pollution issue, so being able to provide them with a forum to meet their counterparts on this issue was extraordinary," Carter said.

Youth like Hannah Testa, 15, who partnered with senators from her home state of Georgia to develop a resolution to educate members of their communities about the growing plastic pollution crisis. Testa served as a one of the squad leaders during the boot camp.

Ten-year-old Robbie Bond from Honolulu and 11-year-old Sophia Albalita and 12-year-old Liam Burns, both from Atlanta, were also there. During the boot camp, the three collaborated on a plan to approach Hawaiian Airlines about the removal of plastics from all flights.

On the last night of the boot camp, Bond—while out to dinner with his family near the French Quarter—convinced the restaurant owner to commit to transitioning from plastic straws to paper straws on the spot.

"They really began to understand their role in shifting awareness [and] building and shifting policy around single-use plastics," Carter said. "It just goes to show the power of radical collaboration and the energy around this crisis."

Eight of the participants presented their campaigns virtually to world leaders at the G7 Summit in Quebec, Canada, earlier this month. Among these were 17-year-old Carter Ries and his sister, 15-year-old Olivia.

"I asked the G7 leaders to make a legally binding global treaty that would end plastic pollution by 2020," Carter said. "We got them to commit in front of everyone to fight to stop plastic pollution."

Carter and Olivia started their organization, One More Generation, when they were 9 and 8 years old to help protect endangered species. They have since launched their One Less Straw Campaign to encourage businesses from around the world to eliminate plastic straws. The five-year program, which began two years ago, has already had over 600 businesses make this commitment, including the Hilton, which announced in May that they will be removing plastic straws from its 650 managed properties by the end of the year.

"We are starting to realize that we need to make a change now. If we don't, then the next generation may not have that chance," Olivia said.

Partners of the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp put together the event in a couple months.

"It was amazing how many folks came forward and wanted to participate. It was crazy fast," Carter said. "We are so fired up by what we saw [that] we are already on board for [another boot camp in] 2019."

In anticipation for next year's event, the Ocean Heroes Action Toolkit has been launched to help young activists develop a campaign in their local communities to keep single-use plastics out of the ocean and request funding for their projects. Youth who submit campaigns through the action toolkit will be prioritized for participation in next year's boot camp.

"Anybody can make a difference. You just have to show people that you are passionate. That's what our entire Ocean Heroes Bootcamp was about," Carter said. "The real change happens when you educate people and find other passionate people. It makes you more passionate and creates a ripple effect."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

Correction: A previous version of this article had the name wrong for the Captain Planet Foundation. This article has been updated with the accurate name of the foundation.

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Kristan Porter grew up in a fishing family in the fishing community of Cutler, Maine, where he says all roads lead to one career path: fishing. (Porter's father was the family's lone exception. He suffered from terrible seasickness, and so became a carpenter.) The 49-year-old, who has been working on boats since he was a kid and fishing on his own since 1991, says that the recent warming of Maine's cool coastal waters has yielded unprecedented lobster landings.

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"Temperature is a big part of the story here," said Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) and a coauthor of the study. "Lobster is likely to decline, and that's obviously more worrisome in the North, where it has been booming."

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Marine scientist Susie Arnold of the Rockland, Maine–based Island Institute notes that rising temperatures have also contributed to a decline in other fisheries like shrimp, cod and scallops, leaving fishermen in Maine precariously dependent on the thriving lobster populations. "A lot of fishermen in coastal communities in Maine are relying on just one fishery, and as we're seeing the impacts of climate change, that definitely gets people worried," she said. In response, Arnold and her colleagues are encouraging fishermen to think about diversification opportunities like aquaculture. "We're trying to help coastal communities maintain their cultural heritage, and a large part of that has to do with making a living off a healthy marine ecosystem."

State lawmakers, too, are taking note of the warming trend and rising up in support of climate action. Maine Governor Janet Mills cited concerns about climate change impacting the lobster industry in her February announcement that the state would join the U.S. Climate Alliance. She has also linked the recent creation of a Maine Climate Council and ambitious statewide renewable energy goals to the health of local fisheries. (Mills recently signed several climate bills into law that will help the state transition to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.)

Such a head-on response to the impacts of climate change facing Maine offers a much-needed boost to the future of both lobsters and the coastal communities that rely on the fishery. Meanwhile, the iconic sea creatures have already benefited from generations of conservation efforts, as noted by Pershing and his fellow researchers. In addition to heeding minimum and maximum catch size limits, fishers must refrain from taking any egg-bearing female lobsters. Instead, when they catch these breeders, they clip their tails with a "V notch,"—a mark that will stay with a lobster through several molts—then release them. (The clipped tail signals to other fisherman who may encounter the same lobsters that they are off-limits.)

Porter and other fisherman liken this investment in the future of the industry to putting money in the bank. And marine scientists, including NRDC's Lisa Suatoni, call it smart climate policy. "Leaving these large, fecund females in the water is a really good idea in the context of a rapidly changing environment," Suatoni said. "It isn't just fixated on how to get maximum sustainable yield but also expanding our objective to also get increased ecological or evolutionary resilience."

The decline of the lobster industry in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, where waters are warmer and regulations less stringent than in Maine, serves as a cautionary tale for their northern neighbor. Landings in southern New England shrank by as much as 70 percent from 1997 to 2007, but the industry has resisted many conservation measures, and again rejected fishing restrictions brought to the table by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2017.

The proposed restrictions would have changed the legal harvesting size and reduced the number of traps allowed per fisherman, among other regulation changes. Had Maine followed the same lax approach, Pershing and his colleagues estimate that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine would have increased by less than half as much as it did during their 30-year study period.

While Pershing praises Maine's forward-looking approach for boosting the resilience of its lobster industry in the face of the growing climate crisis, "there's a limit to how much we can adapt and how much we can manage around it," he said. "When you look beyond 2050 in a high-CO2 world, it's a scenario where fisheries are really challenged no matter where you look in the country. We have to figure out how to avoid that because everything gets so much more difficult in that world—and we can make that case in a really concrete way with some of the fishery models."

Pershing says that climate change is having impacts up and down the food chain in the Gulf of Maine. For example, a sharp decline in a species of tiny copepod — a shrimp-like creature that is a favorite food of herring, seabirds and endangered right whales — is putting further stress on these creatures.

"These aren't just faraway changes that are happening in the ocean where nobody really sees them," Pershing said. "There are real consequences for the Gulf of Maine and the communities that live on the coast."

Nicole Greenfield is a writer at NRDC whose articles on religion, the environment, popular culture and social justice have appeared in many publications.

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Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.

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"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.

As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."

"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."

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