Ocean Heroes Monterey Bay Aquarium celebrates Gonzales High advocates


By Dennis Taylor

There are still a whole lot of fish in the sea, but a less-cheerful truth is that ocean animals are mortally threatened because they share their habitat with plastic, an estimated 150 million metric tons of which is circulating today in the earth’s marine environments.

Most plastic eventually will break into pieces small enough to be ingested by sea animals that are likely to die as a result.

Marine biologists promise that if sea life dies, mankind will follow — a prognostication that got the attention of students in Central California, whose “things to do” list now includes saving the only inhabitable planet in our solar system.

Convincing others to use plastics more responsibly can sometimes be a hard sell, says Cindy Aguilar, one of seven Gonzales High students promoting “No Straw November,” a crusade to convince restaurant managers to reduce the number of plastic straws they routinely hand out with their beverages. A secret weapon — deployed only when conversation fails — is a photo that went viral on the internet: A sea turtle has been deeply impaled through its nose with a plastic straw; a stream of blood trickles from its nostril.

“Sometimes we’ll pull out that photo and show it to people,” Aguilar confesses. “I always feel a little bit mean when I do that, but I think some people need a visual of how overuse of plastic is affecting our ocean life.”

Aguilar and her six classmates (all current or past members of the Gonzales Youth Council, a group of about 12 students that regularly advises city officials on a number of issues) were inspired to participate in “No Straw November” by San Benito High School senior Shelby O’Neil, a Monterey Bay Aquarium volunteer who created the campaign in the summer of 2017 as a Girl Scouts project.

“No Straw November challenges people to avoid single-use plastic straws, a significant source of ocean plastic,” explains O’Neil, who on Oct. 9 was presented with the National Gold Award, the Girl Scouts of America’s most-prestigious honor. “They keep a tally of how many they’re offered, how many they refuse, and how many they use in a year. I’m trying to get people to be more self-aware.”

O’Neil also successfully lobbied state Senator Bill Monning and Gov. Jerry Brown, who in September signed a bill to reduce plastic straw use in California.

And the Monterey Bay Aquarium honored O’Neil, the Gonzales students, and Carmel Middle School teacher Nicole Tiffany (whose fifth-grade class inspired the Carmel City Council to adopt an ordinance banning plastic straws) as “Ocean Heroes,” featuring them prominently on the aquarium’s website.

O’Neil’s enthusiasm ignited a fire under the Gonzales students, who, for the second-consecutive year, are asking local restaurant owners to take a simple pledge.

“We’ve asked about a dozen restaurants in our town to only serve straws upon request, rather than leaving them out and allowing people to use them inappropriately, or grab a surplus. Around nine or 10 agreed to participate,” said Isabel Mendoza, a junior at Gonzales High. “Last year we return a month or two later to get feedback and found out we had been very successful. It had a serious impact on Gonzales.”

More importantly, they see their impact as global. Gonzales residents are a 45-minute drive from the nearest beach, but Mendoza, Aguilar, and their fellow “No Straw November” crusaders — Jack Banuelos, Gerardo Martinez, Fabiola Moreno, Nayeli Gomez, and Magaly Santos — refuse to accept “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” as an excuse.

“You have to think about the bigger picture,” Aguilar explains. “Yeah, maybe we’re not all that close to the ocean, but people we care about are. And some of the resources we need are close to the ocean. It’s about being aware that this planet isn’t just for us. This isn’t just about Gonzales — it’s about everybody else who might be impacted by the destructive use of plastics.”

Santos, a sophomore, says her participation in the “No Straw November” campaign has significantly raised her own awareness about the impact of plastic on the planet.

“We might not live all that close to the ocean, but we don’t want the ocean to be all trashy when we do visit,” she said. “We want our beaches and water to be a clean place that we all can enjoy.”

The “No Straw November” experience has been particularly enlightening for Santos, who says she is considering environmental science as a career.

This whole experience has opened up a part of me to a lot of bigger things,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got involved with this project that I started noticing how many straws we were finding around our city. It was a lot more than I ever would have imagined.”

Aguilar envisions herself entering the political arena somewhere down the road.

Other “Ocean Heroes” recognized on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website are:

  • Santa Cruz County supervisor (and former Assemblyman and California secretary of state) Bruce McPherson, who spearheaded Monterey Bay Community Power, an organization that supplies clean energy to Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito counties;
  • Chef/restaurateur Soerke Peters, for “protecting the environment one sustainable meal at a time” through his certified-green restaurant, Village Corner, in Carmel;
  • And Pacific Grove municipal administrators, for masterminding a new water-treatment system to defend against pollution.

Additional information about all of these initiatives and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s conservation efforts can be found online at www.monterebayaquarium.org/heroes

Dennis Taylor is a freelance writer in Monterey County. Contact him at scribelaureate@gmail.com.

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