High School Teacher’s Surfing Hobby Translates into an Anti-Pollution Project
by Jane Calliff
Joe Mairo, biology and environmental science teacher at Wall Township High School in New Jersey, went surfing one day in 2009 and soon after his leg began to swell where a small cut had been. He ended up in a hospital with a serious staph infection.
For years surfers have complained of contracting all kinds of illnesses, which they have suspected came from high levels of infectious bacteria in rivers and pipes emptying into ocean water near beaches. Mr. Mairo wondered if his infection was related to such pollution. He had even heard such stories from some of his students who were surfers.
He raised this issue at a meeting of the Jersey Shore Chapter of Surfrider, “a grassroots, non-profit, environmental organization that works to protect our oceans, waves and beaches” 1
As vice chair of this chapter, he proposed that they provide tools for students in his environmental club to test ocean water around a pipe that emptied into the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Since the state only publicizes the water quality testing it does during the summer, he felt that his students could make more data available to the public by testing in the fall and spring when water is still warm enough to carry high levels of the bacteria.
The Jersey Shore Chapter agreed to provide support from their Blue Water Task Force, two of whose objectives are to “raise public awareness regarding the extent and severity of coastal water pollution” and “to use the data collected to bring polluters into compliance.”
A teacher from Manasquan High School, not too far from Mr. Mairo’s school, contacted Surfrider asking for help in involving his students in the organization. As a result, Joe Mairo visited this school a few times to help them get started in water monitoring.
Students were divided into two groups – one that collected samples of ocean water and the other that analyzed the samples with the water-testing kits provided by the Blue Water Task Force. Students from Manasquan High School went inland and tested Wreck Pond, between the towns of Spring Lake and Sea Girt, because it has a pipe which runs from the pond out into the ocean. This pond is shallow, warms easily, fills with runoff from the local streets and a golf course, and has a goose population that produces a lot of waste. The Manasquan students found consistently high levels of harmful bacteria.
Mr. Mairo’s students tested the ocean water north of where the pipe emptied into the ocean and south of it.
The results over the course of three years showed that after storms or heavy rainfall, the infectious bacteria levels rose as Wreck Pond filled up with run-off from streets and the golf course, flowed into the pipe and into the ocean. 2
Students involved in this study presented their findings at a Surfrider meeting using a large chart, and this data was put up on the Jersey Shore Chapter’s website. Mr. Mairo’s students also made presentations to classes within his school on watershed stewardship and ways to limit waste in the ocean which would lessen harmful bacteria levels. Their talk was based on Surfrider’s Respect the Beach Program that includes a 19 minute video entitled “From Sea to Summit: A Journey Through the Watershed,” distributed by the Surfrider Foundation. In it, youth talk about and demonstrate how we all live in a watershed: whatever ends up on the street, i.e., plastic bags, oil, garbage, dog waste, will eventually flow into the ocean in stormwater.
(Another component of this project, which Mr. Mairo implemented as a Surf Rider volunteer, was creating a Sick Surfer Campaign where students and others could describe ailments which they link to ocean surfing in polluted areas. As of June 2011, after the site had been on line for a year, 69 people had registered. Their ailments included sinus, ear, skin and other infections and nausea.)
The next step will be to determine the best way to bring this information to the public and to influence state-wide legislation that could lead to increased testing by the state and better storm water management.
It has not been easy for Mr. Mairo to keep up the environmental club’s water-testing project. Students come and go, interest goes up and down; then there are vacations, exams, bad weather and other obstacles. However, he tells why he has valued this work:
“The Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Task Force program has given my students valuable field work experience. It was a great way to connect classroom learning to their local environment and community. We were recognized in a popular New Jersey Newspaper which was exciting for the students and helped raise awareness about water pollution and how to prevent it.” 3
He talks about how he became a teacher. His early exposure to nature was through fishing with his father. Later he became attracted to surfing. When he was deciding on a career, he said to himself, “’If I can find a job where I can do some good, I will be able to do a lot of good in my lifetime’, so that drove me towards teaching.
“Now as a teacher on the coast, it’s really nice to be able to connect with the kids… through surfing, through fishing [to] encourage those pursuits, and also encourage the idea of stewardship and looking out for the resources that we all use and love… Surfers and people who are out in [nature] have much more of a real relationship with it than straight book smarts or being in an office or something like that. So my whole outlook is to live well in my place, teach, try to do good things for the community, do good things for the resources I use, and enjoy life.”4
1“Founded in 1984, the Surfrider Foundation’s most important coastal environmental work is carried out by more than 60 chapters located along the East, West, Gulf, Puerto Rican and Hawaiian coasts.” From the Jersey Shore Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation Website.
2The polluted conditions usually clear out between 36 and 72 hours after the rainfall has subsided. However, surfers are particularly at risk because during a storm and immediately after, the waves are higher and more inviting for surfing.
3This quote and other information not footnoted are from written communication with Joe Mairo.
4From a Surfrider Podcast on December 31, 2010 entitled “Joe Mairo Interview.” (www.surfrider.org/podcasts)