Meet Pam Conti, coastal defender with the Surfrider Foundation Huntington Beach/ Seal Beach Chapter and Pegasus School Environmental Sustainability Director:
Q: Why and when did you get involved with the Surfrider Foundation?
Growing up in Southern California, I feel like Surfrider is just part of the culture here. I was a member on and off for years before I became a dedicated volunteer for the Huntington Beach/ Seal Beach Chapter. I had been teaching for a few years at a local, private K-8 school and was approached to be part of the executive committee and asked if I would fill the role of Education Chair. For the last six years, I’ve been co-chair of Education, focusing on K-8 education, while my co-chair Joe, focuses on the high school and college clubs. About five years ago, I took over running the Blue Water Task Force water testing lab, moved it to my school, and developed a program for my 5th grade students to learn about water quality issues and to perform the testing that we do. Why am I involved in Surfrider? Because I want to give back to the very thing that makes me the happiest, being in the water. But, as a two-time cancer survivor, the last thing I need is to get sick while enjoying the very thing I love the most. I love to surf and I love the way the ocean heals me, now it’s time to help heal our ocean. Helping to protect our ocean, waves, and beaches is my way of giving back.
Q: What are some local issues that are affecting your ocean, waves and beaches?
The biggest local issue that I’m currently working on is the water quality after major storms. When my students and I run the water testing for BWTF, we realize how high the bacteria levels get and how unsafe it is for people to enter the water, yet they do. My students and I have literally had the testing results go “off the chart” this year, with insanely high bacteria levels exceeding a 24,000 count. Keep in mind, the safe bacteria limit in the United States is 104 and anything that exceeds that number is considered unsafe to enter the water. The public needs to be alerted when the bacteria levels exceed this amount, and not just through websites and the standard. People don’t always read those alerts or follow the 'stay out of water 72 hours after rain' rule. My students and I want to see more signs physically posted on beaches, and in particular, one local spot in South Orange County should have a sign posted year-round because the creek is so polluted and people go in it. We had a small victory this year when they finally posted one warning sign!
Q: What Surfrider projects have you worked on?
I have primarily worked on projects focused on reducing plastic pollution through the Risa Above Plastics program and curriculum I’ve developed to help teach it, as well as the BWTF projects. One of the most rewarding and frustrating projects was preparing my students to speak at the local city council when we were trying to ban plastic bags in the city of Huntington Beach. We fought long and hard, did our research, gathered facts and pummeled the city council with logic, for two years. My students and I were heckled in the audience and on social media, but we didn’t give up. We finally achieved victory when the council voted to ban the plastic bag! Well, victory for a little while, until the next city council voted to overturn the bag ban. Luckily, California came through and banned it in our state a year or so later. It was a bitter-sweet lesson in politics for myself and my students, but it was a great lesson in life, to stand up for what you believe in, and do it in a way that is articulate, well-researched, and poised.
Q: What has been the highlight of your Surfrider experience (i.e., campaign, program, victory)?
The bag ban was a huge highlight. The first time we achieved victory at our local city council was one of the greatest nights of my life. I remember going to the beach the morning of the council meeting. I counted 10 plastic bags on the beach. I counted every bag I saw on my 20-mile drive to work and wondered if we could really do this, could we really effect change tonight? Including the 10 bags on the beach, and another 38 or so I saw on the roads and freeways, I thought, could these 48 bags, and the thousands of other out there, really not be an issue in the future? The answer was eventually yes, not only in Huntington Beach, but statewide. Today, I rarely see a plastic bag. They no longer line the fences in Huntington Beach where the wind would constantly blow them. I no longer have to get hit in the face with a bag as I punch through a wave, and most importantly, they are no longer a threat to our wildlife. There are still issues with other types of single-use plastics, and we have a long way to go toward solving the plastic pollution problem, but it is one local victory that I am proud to have played a small part in.
Q: What is the most important thing you tell others about Surfrider?
I tell others that Surfrider is a great way to get involved in your local community and a fun way to be involved on many levels. You can simply participate in beach cleanups with your local chapter, or even on your own, or you can seriously volunteer your time and join a great group of like-minded people working on a myriad of issues surrounding the health of our ocean, waves, and beaches. There are opportunities large and small. I also tell people that Surfrider is legit. The volunteers do a lot on the ground through the grassroots efforts of more than 160 chapters and student clubs around the country, but our staffers that work in the national office do a ton of legal, political, and scientific work to truly fight for a healthier marine environment.
Q: Why are you a Surfrider coastal defender (or why is being a Surfrider coastal defender important to you)?
After I graduated college with an environmental degree, I learned about something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I was frustrated that I had just graduated and never heard of this alarming issue of plastic waste being found in the middle of the ocean, far away from human inhabitants, where the ocean should be pristine and I wanted to do something about it. All of the plastic that enters our ocean worldwide, roughly 8 million metric tons per year, circulates in currents called gyres, and ends up in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles away from any humans. There are five major gyres in the world, the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and in the Indian Ocean. The big blue ocean, that should be pristine, is being trashed by human activities and this is something I felt should be taught in schools. The potential for this toxic plastic breakdown, entering our food chain, making us sick, and harming sea life needs to be stopped. I started teaching about it at my school, but when I became the education chair for our Surfrider chapter, I could reach a much larger audience. That is why I came to Surfrider, to volunteer my time in order to educate as many people as possible about the plastic pollution issue and all issues related to the health of our ocean. If we do not have a healthy ocean, we will not have a healthy planet.
Q: Anything else?
Yes, thank you to Tony Soriano, our Chapter Chair for his tireless efforts to run all of the programs we offer throughout Huntington Beach/ Seal Beach Chapter and the support of our chapter committee who helps him execute all that we do. Whether it's running two beach cleanups a month, setting up harbor cleanups, rallies to fight offshore drilling, finding sponsors and donors to help keep our programs going, Tony and his crew will be there to make sure it gets done.
There are many people within the Surfrider network that work this hard to protect what they love, and I am just happy to be a very small part of it. Surfrider, the dedication of our volunteers, and the youth that I see learning and engaging in ocean activism gives me hope for the future of a healthier planet overall.
Below is a short film featuring Pam, her husband, and her students at Pegasus School in Huntington Beach, CA. The film highlights the amazing work that our Huntington Beach/Seal Beach Chapter Blue Water Task Force is conducting year round. The film also showcases the enormous risk that polluted water poses and the importance of water quality testing and reporting in local communities actoss the country.