When Annie Means, a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, participated in Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium's Youth Ocean Conservation Summit in 2015, she had no idea the impact it would have on her career and her life.
Thanks to several workshops Means attended at one of the annual summit's satellite events in Seattle, she discovered the resources she needed to reach out to her local government and help install recycle and trash bins at public beaches. Means established an online campaign called Recycling on Seattle's Waterfronts and got the attention of the Seattle parks department. "I shared photos of recycled trash on social media," says Means. "It was incredibly helpful."
Means now serves as the sustainability chair of her student government at Whitman, and is working toward lowering the carbon footprint of the campus by 2030. She also works as the marketing coordinator for the summit.
"I still use the skills I learned from workshops at the summit, especially ones about using social media to make people care about the environment," says Means.
The Youth Ocean Conservation Summit was established in 2011 and has been held each year since at Mote. The event draws hundreds of local and national high school students with ideas about how to preserve the ocean's water and wildlife. Since its start, the program has hosted more than 40 events in 13 U.S. cities, and founder and director Sean Russell has gathered guest scientist and conservationist speakers to encourage young activists by offering grants to students with ideas that will improve their communities.
"I began the summit after interning at Mote in high school," says Russell. "My experience made me realize how important it is for youth to be exposed to the conservation field, and help provide active solutions to some of the world's largest issues."
This year, the summit's 10th, the event has gone virtual because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While students won't gather in person, the setup allows for people around the globe to join in. Typically, around 220 participants are present, but Russell is expecting several hundred more young people this year.
The Correia sisters, Kimberly and Keyla, founded Plastic Free Mermaids, an organization working to limit the amount of plastics in the ocean near where they live in Hollywood, Florida. The sisters first attended the summit in 2014 on a school trip, and have presented at several other summits, hoping to inspire other young people.
"We became interested in plastic pollution after attending workshops at the summit, where we heard from other advocates," says Kimberly.
Through Plastic Free Mermaids, the Correia sisters have helped ban the use of plastic utensils at restaurants on the Hollywood boardwalk. The organization hosts beach cleanups with educational talks and incorporates art into their work by turning trash they've collected into installations, teaching people about pollution.
The Correia sisters are now in college at the University of Florida. Plastic Free Mermaids is now a professional organization with chapters at middle and high schools throughout Broward County.
"One of the most powerful skills we learned at the summit was grant writing," says Kimberly. "This gave us the opportunity to apply for grants through the government."
Joey Goldstein, a seasoned activist since age 8, attended the summit in 2017, when she was in seventh grade. Her organization, Saving Ocean Life, was a campaign created for kids to teach them about beach pollution and the animals affected by it. Goldstein, now a sophomore in high school, was a presenter at the summit in 2018.
"Being able to share my story with fellow students has been really powerful and inspiring," says Goldstein. "I continue to make connections through the summit to this day."
Goldstein received a mini-grant through the summit called the Klean It Up Grant and for three years used the money to buy supplies like buckets and gloves. Grants worth up to $200 are awarded to students every year. Now, Goldstein works with groups like Oceana and the Surfrider Foundation from her hometown in Fort Lauderdale.
This year, the summit will include a virtual celebration on Friday, Dec. 4, called "The Next Wave: Charting a Course for a New Decade of Ocean Conservation" that features ocean conservationist and marine policy advocate Wendy Benchley and others. That celebration is free and open to anyone who wants to participate. The summit's main event on Saturday, Dec. 5, will take place virtually from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and will include keynote speakers, youth presentations and skill-building workshops.
"In its first year, people took road trips across the state to be part of this, and now we are hosting events across the country," says Russell. "It's been so exciting to see the enthusiasm for the program, and when we look at the big picture of conservation, we can't afford to write off young people as leaders of the future."