Activist Spotlight
November 07 2018

Activist Spotlight: Natalie Wohner and Anny Barlow

Natalie Wohner and Anny Barlow are tireless defenders of the Oahu coastline. Specifically, the two have championed Surfrider's Ocean Friendly Restaurants program on the island and just this year, have recruited 40 restaurants to ditch single-use plastics and protect the local coast!

Q: Why and when did you get involved with the Surfrider Foundation?

Natalie: About 7 years ago when I first moved to Oahu from Germany! I was upset with all the trash on the beach and that there are no options to recycle your waste, all of what I took for granted in Germany. A friend took me to a Surfrider Oahu chapter meeting and the rest is history.

Anny: I first encountered Surfrider in 2012 in Sri Lanka while I was traveling. I made it a point in my head to connect with the Foundation once I stopped traveling. When I was in the process of “settling down” in 2017 back home here on Oahu, in the midst of finding a home, car, job, etc. I met the Surfrider Oahu Treasurer, Matt Moore, who said, “want come camping and remove invasive species with us?”  To which I replied, “I’m in!” The rest is history.

Q: What are some local issues that are affecting your ocean, waves and beaches?

Natalie: Marine debris is probably the biggest issue. It’s heartbreaking to go snorkeling and run into turtles all wrapped up in fishing nets, walk on remote beaches and see all the micro and macro plastics wash ashore from all over the world. There is a dysfunctional waste management system on Oahu, so the trash gets either burned or goes to the landfill which is shocking if you consider the amount of take-out places on the islands that still use polystyrene containers.

Anny: After traveling for a decade, I arrived on my home beach, still one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen, being smothered in plastics. I also noticed the sea turtles that used to be around in the shoreline that you would see swimming in the waves, no longer were there. You have to paddle far out to see their existence now.

I now play a game every time I go to the beach. Without moving my rear end off of the towel, I see how many pieces of plastic I can pick up. The number is astounding and I have been kept busy for over 4 or 5 hours without moving while playing this game. The microplastics are so prevalent on what the world deems one of the top 10 beaches of the world (Kailua Beach) that you almost confuse them for sand if you don’t look carefully.

To be honest, many of the Hawaii beaches are like this, especially on shorelines where the current brings in marine debris. I have often thought, “if we took away all of the microplastics on certain beaches, would we have a beach left?” Seemingly, there are more microplastics that make up the sandy ground we walk on than there are sand particles if you look closely enough at some locations.

Q: What Surfrider projects have you worked on?

Natalie: I started going to beach cleanups, building ocean friendly gardens,  helping with the annual fundraiser, the John Kelly Awards, and now I am co-coordinating Surfrider's Ocean Friendly Restaurants program in Hawai’i and trying to ban plastic straws at University of Hawai’i at Manoa as the vice-chair of the Surfrider Club. That’s how it goes smile

Anny: Ocean Friendly Restaurants, Beach Clean-ups, and Oahu Chapter’s annual John Kelly Awards Fundraising event!

Q: What has been the highlight of your Surfrider experience (i.e., campaign, program, victory)?

Natalie: If I would have to pick one, then it is probably the feeling of getting involved in civics and fighting together to pass a plastics bill or protect a special place. Thanks to the great team effort of so many environmental groups and supporters from all over, Maui and the Big Island banned polystyrene food containers last year. Oahu is still working on the ban of styrofoam, but this year we were the closest ever to pass the bill. Fingers crossed for next year!

Anny: Working with Surfrider's Ocean Friendly Restaurants program has been an amazing experience. Participating in a program that helps businesses find and take small steps that lead to such impactful change, educating consumers along the way and creating a positive domino effect of environmental awareness is an incredible journey that has taken me far beyond interactions with solely restaurants. It has created a space for change and has spearheaded new relationships to promote constant positive change throughout our whole community, from Ocean Friendly Gardens to working with the city and county, and the state’s Department of Energy.

Q: What is the most important thing you tell others about Surfrider?

Natalie: Get involved! You might think you can’t change the world by yourself, but I think every little bit you do on a personal level to protect our precious ocean makes a BIG difference!

Anny: You don’t have to be a surfer to join Surfrider! If you love the environment and want to get involved, we have so many programs for a variety of interests and skills- come, join, and see what campaigns and programs suit you!

Q: Why are you a Surfrider coastal defender (or why is being a Surfrider coastal defender important to you)? 

Natalie: The ocean gives me so much joy and I promised to return the favor!

Anny: I have always loved the ocean and have wanted to protect it. Returning to my home beach after 10 years of being away, seeing the change it had undergone - covered in microplastics and the obvious loss of sea turtles was enough to inspire me to get involved and fight for the coast.

The importance of pointing this out to others, educating the community, and inspiring change cannot be overstated. Surfrider aligns with my values, while creating an awesome network of like-minded people. And hey, here on Oahu, our team has a massive amount of fun together! So why not?

Q: Anything else? 

There are some incredible minds in this organization. We can’t wait to see what continued successes we have coming down the line to care for our community and ocean!