Updated: Jul 16, 2018
This post was originally published in the Camden Herald newspaper.
In a lot of ways, speaking about the importance of the ocean to a bunch of Midcoast Mainers feels like preaching to the choir. Of course, there is really no question that the community we call home is heavily rooted in marine culture and tradition. For generations, the ocean has provided livelihoods for hardworking lobster men and women, brave ship captains, and innovative boat builders. It has served as a source of inspiration for countless artists, authors, and poets. For others, it has been the quietly-beautiful backdrop for a life spent near the sea.
The ocean shapes our ways of life. Warm summers spent out on the bay visiting the many islands; trips to Lucia beach to explore the tide pools; relaxing afternoons at Beauchamp Point. In July and August, we bear witness to the hoards of tourists that, like migrating seabirds, flock to the Midcoast to enjoy the views of Penobscot Bay from Mt. Battie or a sunset cruise aboard a schooner. In the winter, we “Ski the Sea” at the Camden Snow Bowl, relishing glimpses of the Atlantic from the chairlift or atop the summit.
Our lives are impacted by the ocean in other ways too. For instance, you would be hard-pressed to find somewhere else in the world where a harbor seal named André could reach such a level of celebrity. Here in the Midcoast, well, he was practically a Kardashian. You needn't look further than our schools' mascots to get the idea. Anyone outside of Maine always gets a laugh when I explain that not one, but both my middle and high school mascots were old wooden ships — Go Jammers.
Inarguably, the ocean is part of who we are. Our ties to the ocean are so embedded in the fabric of our communities that perhaps, like a threadbare flannel shirt or a well-worn pair of Carhartts, they are almost taken for granted. Sure, we love to sail, and lobsters and mussels are great, and we all know coastal tourism boosts business, but do we really take the time to understand and appreciate what drives all this? Do we understand it enough to know that it needs our help?
Around the world, the ocean is suffering. Human activity has placed an enormous amount of stress on the ocean environment. Through coastal development, extractive industries, and the combustion of fossil fuels, ocean habitats have been destroyed, species threatened, the very chemistry of seawater altered. Excessive harvesting has depleted fish stocks, with over 30 percent of fisheries classified as overexploited. Marine pollution has reached unprecedented levels with a staggering average of 13,000 pieces of plastic litter present on every square kilometer of ocean, from the desolate ice fields of Antarctica to our shores here in the Midcoast and everywhere in between. Our home, the Gulf of Maine, is no exception -- temperatures are changing, species are relocating, and uniquely special places, like Cashes Ledge, are threatened by oil and gas exploration.
Like many of you, having grown up here in Midcoast Maine, I have always felt an innate connection with the ocean. This fascination led me to pursue a degree in marine biology at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, where I worked to establish an extensive background on the ocean's ecological systems and the geological processes that drive them. I have performed lab work on the urban shorelines of Boston, measured water quality in the Charles River, and conducted necropsies on harbor seals for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. I chose to broaden my education by obtaining a second degree in Environmental Studies and focused on environmental policy, management, and sustainable development. In this vein, I completed three internships working with public health litigation, ocean conservation campaigning, and responsible investing regarding food-related commodities, fish being one of them. With the goal of mastering my Spanish language skills, I studied for six months in Viña del Mar, Chile, researching the environmental and social scenarios that impact sustainable development for coastal cities in Latin America.
During my time in Latin America, I was struck by the power of environmental education as a solution to many of the dire problems facing our oceans today. When face-to-face with the pressing challenges confronting our oceans, environmental education has a unique power to conquer these immense problems by changing the way in which society views, and consequently treats, the environment. When someone learns about something, whether it is mangroves or right whales, an appreciation is formed. This appreciation leads an individual to assign value to it in their mind. When something is of value to someone, they feel concern for it, possess a desire to protect it, and an urge to see that no harm comes to it.
For the ocean in particular, environmental education is of immense importance due to the severity and immediacy of issues facing the ocean, and the inherent obscurity of the ocean. Although there is some action being taken to address ocean issues, significant and sustainable change is lagging. The specific reason for this inaction is difficult to nail down, but I believe it stems from a sense of apathy towards the ocean. For decades, ocean issues have been cast aside, relegated to the back burner, that old "out of sight, out of mind." Attitudes like this have led to the state of our oceans today: exploited, depleted, and polluted.
Education has the power to eliminate this feeling of apathy towards the ocean. Education gives people a reason to care.
While I was volunteering in a fifth-grade classroom at an elementary school in Chile, I conceived the idea for Saltwater Classroom, a weeklong, hands-on curriculum focused on marine science and ocean conservation that then transitioned into a global network of students connected by a passion for the ocean. Since this idea occurred to me in the fall of 2016, I have presented it at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference and extensively developed it for my senior capstone project at Northeastern.
This summer, I am bringing Saltwater Classroom to the Midcoast, the area that first introduced me to the wonders of the ocean. A pilot program of Saltwater Classroom, Saltwater Summer 2018, will take place in Camden from July 9 to 13. The weeklong program will use science and art to connect young students, ages 9 through 12, to the marine environment and allow participants to lay the groundwork for a lifelong commitment to ocean stewardship. For more information regarding Saltwater Classroom and to register for this summer, visit: saltwaterclassroom.com or contact me, Lexi Doudera, at email@example.com.
A wave of sustainable change for our oceans is coming — let’s ride it together.