By Katy Bland, Guest Author
On Galveston Island, Texas, the home of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary headquarters, students at Greta Oppe Elementary Campus of Coastal Studies (Oppe) are ‘Ocean Guardians.’
“We have to do everything in our power to keep the ocean clean,” emphasizes Rhiannon, a student on The Green Team at Oppe. Rhiannon and her classmates don’t just talk about ocean conservation, but are changing their actions and influencing their community to preserve the Gulf of Mexico. Oppe’s special programs immerse students in the marine biology of the Gulf Coast through both school-led field trips and student-led conservation initiatives. Most of the student-led initiatives are run by The Green Team, which boasts a legacy of conservation. In 2012-2013, students on The Green Team led the movement to name the Kemp’s Ridley turtle the official Sea Turtle of Texas.
Led by Teacher and Green Team Mentor Becky Hernandez, in 2017 Oppe applied for an NOAA Ocean Guardian School grant. In doing so, they committed to implement a conservation project at their school, and share the project with their school and community. Successful completion of their grant will qualify Oppe as an official “NOAA Ocean Guardian School,’ a network of 87 schools and 2 districts across the U.S. committed to protection and conservation of ocean resources in California, New York, Maryland, Colorado, Washington, Hawaii, and (newly) Texas.
What does being a NOAA Ocean Guardian School mean? As Joseph, a member of The Green Team, expresses, “It means we have to love and cherish the ocean so that generations after us can enjoy it.” NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools make a commitment to conservation and preservation of watersheds, the ocean, and special places by implementing a school- or community-based conservation project. The Ocean Guardian program is a partnership between NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, that provides financial and informational resources that helps schools increase their momentum for conservation. The Foundation initiated the expansion of the Ocean Guardian program to the Gulf Coast with Greta Oppe Elementary and also Odyssey Academy, and additional grants to Texas schools are planned for the 2018-2019 school year.
What steps are the students at Oppe taking to make a healthier ocean?
They host a Bi-annual Beach Cleanup – In collaboration with the Texas General Land Office Adopt-A-Beach Program, Oppe hosts a beach cleanup on a mile segment of Galveston’s beach. Green Team member Adelyn states that they “want to keep the ocean clean so the sea animals will be able to live.” With NOAA Ocean Guardian School funding, The Green Team made their beach cleanup even more sustainable by purchasing reusable gloves and buckets, eliminating the need for plastic garbage bags! During their fall 2017 cleanup they collected 104 lbs. (~47 kg) of trash.
Through small scale cleanups like this, the nation’s network of NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools have collected more than 62 tons of trash from 2010-2016. That’s the equivalent weight of two humpback whales!
They host an Ocean Discovery Night – In January, Oppe hosted an ocean-themed open house, Ocean Discovery Night. More than 800 people enjoyed learning from exhibits made by each grade; displays on the marine life that inhabit oil/gas platforms and docks; dioramas of sea turtles nesting; posters on the impacts of litter on marine life; and even an “Into the Deep” library highlighting creatures living in the aphotic zone. The second grade chose to highlight a presentation by Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary staff on the effects of trash!
They encourage their families to “Take the Pledge” – Oppe is combatting the plastic pollution epidemic, one bag at a time. Students recognize that plastic bags are a large contributor to both marine debris and marine organism deaths. Students are encouraging their families to “Take the Pledge” to not use single-use plastic bags, and were given a reusable bag to kick-start this sustainable habit.
Between 2010-2016, a total of 7,870 reusable bags were distributed or purchased to replace single-use bags at NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools across the nation!
They educate the student body on the importance of sustainability – Watch The Green Team’s NOAA Ocean Guardian School video, complete with student skits, marine debris lessons, and a few of Oppe’s conservation initiatives!
How will Oppe expand their sustainable efforts in the future?
They are going to install plastic bottle recycling receptacles and monofilament collection receptacles – Located just ¾ of a mile from the beach and bay, The Green Team recognizes that they are in a prime location for facilitating proper disposal of monofilament fishing line. By providing a designated collection receptacle, they will aid in keeping marine organisms from entanglement in human-made waste. They will additionally partner with the Galveston Eco Center to coordinate plastic bottle recycling once bins are in place in the school. Sophia, a member of The Green Team, is excited that “We are learning to recycle and teaching others to recycle too!”
Between 2010 and 2016, a total of 776 recycling bins have been installed at Ocean Guardian Schools across the nation.
They are going to install a rooftop rainwater catchment system to water “Greta’s Garden.” – Instead of letting rainwater that falls on their school become runoff, The Green Team plans to harness this untapped source of freshwater to keep their outdoor classroom, Greta’s Garden, thriving. By installing a strategically placed gutter and cistern system and using the captured water to water the garden, they are conserving valuable freshwater while preventing runoff from transporting nutrients and other pollutants into the ocean!
Between 2010 and 2016, a total of 43 rain barrels have been installed at NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools across the nation.
The NOAA Ocean Guardian School program is unique because it is one of the only programs out there that ties educational lessons that reach thousands of students annually to measurable conservation impacts to the natural resource that can be tracked on a national scale. This program empowers students by showing the cumulative impact their peers can have and forming sustainable habits in youth. Undoubtedly, students at Oppe will be life-long guardians of the ocean and sustainability leaders of the future.