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Launched in 2011 to bring attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Guilford Lakes and A.W. Cox schools' recycled Rakefish art project has evolved into a national marine litter initiative, visiting classrooms and symposiums across the country.
Now, Guilford's imaginative Rakefish has gone global. Meanwhile, two life-sized sea turtles, also built of recycled materials by Lakes and A.W. Cox kids, began swimming a similar message over to Long Island Sound-area schools in 2013. The turtles also hope to soon inspire those at more points on the world's compass.
Accompanying these artful creatures are two very vital websites. One, www.rakefish.org, follows the Rakefish as its message is passed along, and added upon, by those it meets. The other, www.seaofnoplastic.org, focuses on building a sea of critters as kids are educated on the dangers of water pollution created by single-use, disposable plastic waste.
Sea of No Plastic is modeled on the success of the Rakefish project, which first took off to spread the news on marine litter in 2011, with the help of a Guilford Fund for Education (GFFE) grant. Rakefish has the continued local support of those including Guilford High School InterAct (a Guilford Rotary club). Additionally, it has been buoyed along by interest from non-profits including Take 3: An Australian Clean Beach Initiative, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (founded by Captain Charles Moore, credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), and the Colorado Ocean Coalition.
Social media exposure kept up by creator and Lakes/Cox art teacher Joe Bernier has also helped draw attention to the effort, recently bringing Rakefish to symposiums for both the Colorado Ocean Coalition and Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Rakefish was also featured on Smithsonian's web-based "Ocean Portal" on World Oceans Day (June 8, 2012). Rakefish visited California beach clean-ups with the Surfrider Foundation. With Take 3's assistance, Rakefish arrived in Australia last week, on Feb. 10.
Together with Rakefish project co-coordinator and school parent Elizabeth Kozarec, Bernier recently sat down with the Guilford Courier to share news of how all of these efforts, especially those of newly launched www.seaofnoplastic.org, will hopefully continue long into the future.
"Our idea all along is where do we go with it, because this thing has a life of its own," said Kozarec, who worked with parent Amy Macy to help Bernier get Rakefish launched in 2011. "We could always envision a site, and then Joe actually put it together, through the turtles coming into being."
The site is www.seaofnoplastic.org. It's designed to bring the issue of plastic pollution to watershed-related areas (coastal, inland, and otherwise). The site uses the Rakefish as its "star" and shows how the concept can be expanded upon with more creatures, such as with Bernier's addition of the sea turtles.
"So the idea is to generate interest with kids in those watershed areas, by doing a Rakefish, or a sea turtle, or lobsters, or whatever it is that's indigenous to that area that's a concern," said Kozarec. "So the Sea of No Plastic actually becomes a sea of other animals."
Already, a group in the Dominican Republic has exhibited "keen interest" in a visit from one of the sea turtles, said Bernier, who continues to man both projects as a labor of love. The other turtle is expected to stick along the East Coast (traveling from Canada on down).
"So as this goes into more areas, a kid might go on Sea of No Plastic and learn something about sea turtles in the Dominican Republic, and the little areas and towns there and how it's affected those other areas, which is learning they may never get otherwise," said Kozarec.
Whether it's clogging waters in its recognizable form (think single-use water bottles) or broken down into bits no larger than shells or sand, the plastic trash and related chemicals leaching into the environment are devastating marine life, said Bernier, from micro beads wreaking havoc in the Great Lakes to plankton-sized plastic in the world's oceans.
"It's really heartbreaking," he said. "You go out to places like Midway Atoll, a thousand miles from any land, and it's not the big pieces; it's the small pieces. By 10-to-1 in some areas, the plastic bits outnumber the plankton."
While predictions on plastic pollution have been dire for decades, research and evidence is only now coming about to back it up.
"It's an emerging issue and it's a complex one," said Bernier. "So what we did with our project was to break it down and ask, what are these kids going to learn? Basically, it's how are the animals impacted from this in your area, or how are the people impacted, or how does the water get to the ocean from your area if you're not on the ocean?"
Not only do the students embrace the learning, they become the educators, added Kozarec.
"Along with the Rakefish comes a PowerPoint [presentation], and each group that accepts the Rakefish has to contribute to the PowerPoint," she said. "So the kids are educating the next group, and the next group, on more interesting and eye-opening things, from one group of kids in one part of the country to a class of kids in another. And that's why we're so excited to see it move on to Australia, to see what kind of issues kids highlight over there."
Now that Rakefish has reached a global level of success, it's time to concentrate on helping www.seaofnoplastic.org, which is modeled on the Rakefish Project, succeed and grow, too.
"It's very difficult when you're volunteering for this and you have no time," Bernier said with a smile, when asked what's on his wish list for these projects.
"The generosity of the groups which have helped along the way, and continue to help, is much appreciated," he said.