Editor’s Note: Sean Russell is the founder of the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project and the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. Both initiatives were developed through his ongoing association with Mote Marine Laboratory and other groups. To learn more about these programs focused on youth conservation and education, watch this video on YouTube and visit StowItDontThrowItProject.org. Sean is close to completing an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Florida.
Congratulations, Sean, on being selected to receive a SBEP Blue Dolphin Award for 2013. SBEP will be presenting your award at the opening night program for this year’s Youth Ocean Conservation Summit at Mote. What does the award mean to you as a native son of Sarasota?
Thank you so much. Having grown up in Sarasota, enjoying the beauty of our beaches, coastlines, and waterways, I’ve always been passionate about the conservation of these important ecosystems. I’m honored to be a recipient of a SBEP Blue Dolphin Award this year. Having studied dolphins and other wildlife of Sarasota Bay, I know how important it is to continue implementing community based solutions to the challenges facing our coastal environments.
Congratulations as well for being selected the 2013 recipient of the Christopher Benchley Youth Award presented by the Blue Frontier Campaign. You were acknowledged with an impressive group of other award recipients including President Macky Sall of Senegal and Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
The awards recognize excellence in ocean conservation solutions in science, policy, media, youth and citizen activism. What was it like to be honored at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. in May? It was rewarding and humbling to be recognized with an incredible group of life long ocean scientists, conservationists, and activists during the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards Ceremony. I’m grateful to the Blue Frontier Campaign for their commitment to recognizing the importance of youth activism in the field of ocean conservation.
You grew up in Sarasota and your association with Mote Marine Laboratory has played an important role in your efforts to promote conservation and wildlife protection. Tell us about how Mote has contributed to your education and spirit of activism?
I began visiting Mote at an early age and that included visiting the aquarium with my family. These trips helped fuel my interest in marine wildlife and the Sarasota Bay ecosystem. In middle school, I began participating in Mote’s summer camp programs, which gave me the opportunity to learn about marine science, as well as the research and conservation work being done at Mote. In 2006, when I was in ninth grade, I returned to Mote as a participant in their High School Intern Program. That was an opportunity to get more involved with hands on research and education. This eventually led to the development of the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project, and sparked my ongoing interest in conservation and biology. Through the years, Mote’s exciting and innovative education programs allowed me to learn about local and global marine ecosystems and their inhabitants, and it also provided me with an avenue to become involved in marine conservation. Nearly 20 years after my first visit to Mote, it’s still exciting to work with their incredible staff. The entire Mote organization has been terrific in supporting the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project and the annual Youth Ocean Conservation Summit.’
What does the Mote Intern Program entail since that was an important part of your education?
The Mote High School Intern Program provides high school students with the opportunity to learn about Mote’s research, conservation, and education efforts through a hands-on approach. I applied to be part of the program prior to my freshman year of high school, and was lucky enough to participate for four years. Upon becoming an intern, I was able to participate in educational sessions and meetings that provided me with an introduction to Mote’s research work. Throughout the year, I volunteered for a variety of Mote’s education programs ranging from Aquarium sleepovers and school programs, to the same summer camps I used to participate in when I was younger. The opportunity to teach younger students about marine science and conservation was very rewarding. After completing the first year of my internship, I returned for the next three years to participate in the alumni program. This portion of the program allows returning interns to take part in a meaningful marine research experience, and provides continuing opportunities to communicate marine science and conservation messages to the public. Over a two year period, my fellow interns and I had the opportunity to work with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program; the world’s longest running wild dolphin research project, on a study of human-dolphin interactions in Sarasota Bay. After gathering and processing data from studying wild dolphins in Sarasota Bay, we developed community outreach projects focused on bottlenose dolphin conservation. These experiences influenced my decision to launch the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project. My experiences with Mote’s Intern Program continued in twelfth grade, when I had the chance to broaden my research experience by assisting with a study of Spotted Eagle Rays, and by constructing Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) to study habitat types in Sarasota Bay. Throughout my time in the program, I also had the chance to connect with other individuals and organizations involved in conservation work through additional experiences including field trips to Disney’s Living Seas, Sea World, and Mote’s Tropical Research Lab on Summerland Key.
What is the purpose of the Stow It-Don’t Throw It Project? Please share some background information about the issue the project addresses.
The Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project is a youth-driven marine debris prevention and ocean conservation initiative. I launched the program while serving as a high school intern at Mote in 2008, after learning first hand about how improperly disposed fishing line was harming bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay. The impact of fishing line entanglement on all marine wildlife stood out to me as a major threat to the conservation of these animals, but also seemed like an issue that could be addressed. One solution comes in the form of PVC pipe fishing line recycling bins, which are coordinated by the Florida Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program located at popular fishing areas around our state. Although these recycling bins provide a place for proper disposal of fishing line, one of the contributing factors to the problem of fishing line entanglement of wildlife is that people aren’t always fishing in an area where they can access the bins. One year into my internship, I learned about an idea developed by a dolphin research scientist at Mote to repurpose used tennis ball containers into personal-sized fishing line recycling bins. These recycling bins seemed like a perfect solution to the problem, because they served as a tool where anglers could safely store their used fishing line, keeping it out of the environment until it could be properly disposed. The moment I learned about these recycling bins was the moment I felt I could do something about the problem. I also felt I could recruit other students to help me. Having grown up as member of the Florida 4-H Program, where I had the opportunity to learn about environmental issues and work with peers and adults to lead community service projects, I had the experience and support needed to develop a plan to tackle the problem of fishing line entanglement. In 2008, I initiated the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project by recruiting help from fellow 4-H members. With support from staff at Mote and grant funding from the Florida 4-H Program, we teamed up in an effort to make and distribute 1,000 personal-sized fishing line recycling bins, and began efforts to educate the public about the importance of fishing line recycling and responsible fishing practices. The enthusiasm and dedication young people brought to this effort, as well as the support and guidance they received from adult mentors, continues to be the driving force of the program. What began as a year-long ocean conservation service project quickly expanded to an ongoing marine debris prevention effort involving youth in school programs, colleges, summer camp programs at zoos and aquariums, scouting programs, and Boys and Girls clubs. To date, these young people have made and distributed over 6,000 personal-sized fishing line recycling bins and have raised awareness about fishing line recycling and marine debris prevention. Since the launch of the project, we’ve involved students across Florida in this effort, and also engaged students in Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, California, Illinois and Pennsylvania in the assembly and distribution of personal-sized fishing line recycling bins. In addition to fishing line recycling, we’ve expanded this effort to provide support and resources to students in order to raise awareness about marine debris prevention. As part of this effort, I recently worked to develop a marine debris prevention educational presentation and activity book, designed for students to share with their peers and community members to raise awareness about the issue. These materials were first made available in April of this year, when students and educators across the country used them as part of a Global Youth Service Day and Earth Day effort to engage students in marine debris prevention efforts.
What is the purpose of the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit? How did the program come about and what does it entail?
It was the enthusiastic response of young people involved in the work of the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project, which prompted me to seek the support of Mote Marine Laboratory to launch a Youth Ocean Conservation Summit in November of 2011. With a goal of creating a program that would teach students of all ages how to launch their own ocean conservation projects, and provide them with the knowledge and resources needed to ensure the success of their projects, I had a vision of bringing together youth and adults interested in ocean conservation. At each summit, participants learn from scientists and conservationists about current ocean conservation issues. They also learn what other young people are already doing in the field of ocean conservation. New participants take part in an action planning session where they work with peers and mentors from conservation organizations to create a plan for their own ocean conservation project. The afternoon portion of the summit allows participants to take part in a unique series of skill building workshops, designed to provide students with the tools necessary to successfully implement their ocean conservation projects. Past workshops have focused on topics including: fundraising, working with the media, leveraging business partnerships, engaging government officials, filming public service announcements, and branding. Young people who have attended the Youth Ocean Conservation Summits, over the past two years, have implemented ocean conservation projects which include: mangrove planting projects, educational outreach projects, coastal clean ups, monofilament fishing line educational awareness days, oyster restoration projects, underwater cleanups, school recycling projects, sea turtle conservation initiatives, and beach front cigarette butt disposal projects. Throughout the year, we continue to engage summit participants through our Youth Ocean Conservation Team network, which gives participants a chance to share ideas and success stories as they carry out their ocean conservation work. Through a monthly E-mail newsletter, which goes out to past summit participants, as well as students around the world who are interested in ocean conservation, we share a variety of opportunities such as grants, competitions, and educational programs that enable them to further their ocean conservation work. We also help support the efforts of summit participants through a mini-grant program funded by sponsor support and through monies from ticket sales to our Community Ocean Conservation Film Festival. This event was created last year to broaden the impact of this event, and raise awareness about the work of young people in the field of ocean conservation. This event will feature a screening of the film Operation: Blue Pride, which tells the moving story of how three severely wounded, combat veterans are fighting to save our oceans and sharks, and in doing so, are saving themselves. This event will also highlight the work of young people in the field of ocean conservation through a screening of student created ocean conservation short films, and exhibits highlighting youth-driven ocean conservation projects. Proceeds from ticket sales for this event fund a mini-grant program designed to provide funding for the youth driven ocean conservation projects planned at the 2013 Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. A portion of proceeds will also benefit Operation: Blue Pride. Our third annual Youth Ocean Conservation Summit will be held Saturday, November 16 at Mote Marine Laboratory. This year’s event will continue to provide new workshops and trainings designed to allow returning participants to expand on their current ocean conservation work, while training new participants to launch their current ocean conservation work. This event will bring together youth of all ages, from across Florida, as well as other states in the U.S., in a collaborative effort to protect our vital marine ecosystems.
You are currently a student at the University of Florida. What are you studying and what are your plans following graduation?
I’m a biology major in my last semester at UF. After graduation, I plan to integrate my conservation work into a career focused on science education. My love for the earth and its inhabitants is what motivates me toward the field of education as I feel it is imperative that young people develop a love for nature and a desire to protect it. My work on both research and education programs at Mote has shown me the importance of combining both scientific research and educational outreach initiatives to achieve an ultimate goal of engaging people of all ages in conservation efforts.
You were home schooled in Sarasota. What was it like having your mother as a teacher and how was your education enriched from having a more flexible schedule and opportunities to contribute to the curriculum?
Having come from a family of educators, I benefited from the experience my mother had in the field of education, when it came to my homeschool curriculum. Early on in my life, my mother recognized in me a need for a hands-on approach to learning. She helped foster this need by allowing me to take part in a myriad of educational learning opportunities. Due to the flexible nature of my homeschooling schedule, I had the opportunity to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities that contributed to my learning experience.
Some people assume that being home-schooled means fewer opportunities to develop socially. That doesn’t appear to have been an issue for you because of your interests in working with various groups of other students and adults.
There are always opportunities for home schooled students to be involved in activities with their peers through a variety of community outlets. For me, my involvement in the 4-H program, as well as extracurricular activities, provided me with ample opportunities to interact with other students my own age, both in the Sarasota area, as well as throughout the state and country.
How did the 4-H Program contribute to your education and what other groups have you been associated with?
The 4-H Program’s “Learning by Doing” approach enriched my educational experience as I have always been a hands-on learner. The extracurricular science education programs I was able to participate in throughout my 9 years as a 4-H member contributed significantly to the knowledge base I rely on, and continue to rely on, throughout my college career. These programs included studies in marine science, forestry, entomology, conservation, and STEM programs to name a few. Additionally, 4-H gave me an avenue to take part in, and lead, a diverse range of community service projects at local and state levels. I have been able to use the skills I gained from serving in 4-H leadership positions, and ultimately as the Florida 4-H State President, in my current environmental work and while serving as a member of the State Farm Youth Advisory Board and on Youth Service America’s Board of Directors and Youth Council.
You spent some time this summer as an intern with State Farm at their corporate offices in Bloomington, Illinois. What did you do with State Farm and please explain the purpose of their Youth Advisory Board?
I’ve had the opportunity to intern in the Life/Health Underwriting department at State Farm’s corporate headquarters over the past two summers due to my involvement as a member of the State Farm Youth Advisory Board. The State Farm Youth Advisory Board is made up of 30 young people ages 17-20 from across the U.S. and Canada. The board oversees and implements a signature $5 million per year philanthropic initiative that funds $4 million of grants for youth-driven service-learning projects, and a $1 million initiative called Neighborhood Assist, which empowers people of all ages to bring about positive change in their local communities.
How do you know about the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) and why do you believe the program is important to Sarasota Bay?
I became aware of the work of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program through my involvement with Mote, as well as other aquariums and conservation organizations in the area. I feel the work of SBEP is critical to maintaining the health of Sarasota Bay and its inhabitants, and plays an important role in educating and engaging citizens of all ages as stewards of our coastal ecosystems. This of course, is very important to me, and it’s been an honor to have their support for the work of the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project and Youth Ocean Conservation Summit.
You recently attended the annual conference for the National Marine Educators Association in Mobile. What did this experience entail?
I was privileged to be able to attend this conference this past July as result of my work with the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project. The experience provided me with an incredible opportunity to network with marine science educators from across the United States, and around the world, all while taking part in workshops and sessions highlighting best practices in marine science education and conservation. These gatherings provide an important avenue for educators to come together and collaborate on ways to address the critical needs of today’s students to better understand ocean science and conservation.
Your parents are obviously proud of your accomplishments. What would you like to share about your mom and dad as role models? In what ways have they inspired you?
Throughout my life, my parents have had a tremendous influence on my desire to be involved in conservation efforts. From a young age, my parents involved my older brother and me in environmental education programs, such as Junior Ranger programs at National Parks, and always ensured we had ample opportunities to spend time outdoors, enjoying and appreciating the natural world around us. These early experiences led me to develop a passion for environmental conservation, one that my parents continued to foster as I grew older. Their personal commitments to conservation and education have always been an inspiration to me. I am incredibly grateful for the never ending support, guidance, and love they give me, while allowing me to pursue my interests and passions in conservation.
A lot of the messaging related to conservation and sustainability tends to be fear-based such as the threat of the extinction of polar bears and cities being inundated with rising water. As an emerging leader, do you think this messaging is effective? What are some alternatives?
Fear may be a motivator, but can also be an immobilizer. While conservation messaging depicting dire consequences due to unsustainable practices may draw our attention to pressing environmental challenges, in some situations its message can be so discouraging that people feel unable to address these challenges. I believe that regardless of the conservation messaging used, to be effective it must incorporate a solutions based approach. Through my work with the Stow It – Don’t Throw It Project and Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, I strive to educate people of all ages about the challenges facing our planet’s marine ecosystem, and then empower them with the tools and knowledge they need to implement solutions to the various challenges.
You interact with many students locally and around the nation. What is your sense about the current and future contributions of your generation?
My work with diverse groups of students across the country leaves me continually optimistic about their devotion to tackling the many challenges facing our generation. These young people bring a unique perspective, enthusiasm, and an unprecedented level of connectedness to both their peers and the issues we face on a global scale. They embody the solutions based approach I mentioned previously, and are constantly willing to take action to advocate for, and bring about positive change in their communities.
What are some of your other interests and passions beyond conservation and environmental education?
Outside of my studies, and work with environmental education and conservation, I also enjoy SCUBA diving, hiking, kayaking, nature photography, and traveling.