The Essex children helping to protect Maldon’s beaches

MERI School

MERI School - Credit: Archant

The ancient town of Maldon is rich in history and most of it derives from its position on the Blackwater Estuary. Like many waterways, the estuary is facing the challenges of pollution, but Petra Hornsby speaks to someone prepared to take on the challenge

MERI School

MERI School - Credit: Archant

Once a thriving working port and Saxon settlement, Maldon became a desirable location high on the Vikings’ hit list and, in 991 following a fierce battle, the locals were overpowered by the Norse warriors. It’s positioned on the Blackwater Estuary, which joins the Thames and was once vital for sending cargo to and from London, but like many rivers and waterways in Britain, the estuary is facing growing challenges from pollution.

As a society, we have a problem with waste and although many of us work hard to recycle packaging materials and other unwanted items thoughtfully, much will still end up in hedgerows, fields and, perhaps more worryingly, rivers and oceans. It would seem that marine life is suffering and now research has revealed that waste plastics could well be in danger of affecting human health too.

Estimates of the amount of plastics dumped in oceans stand at around 8 million tons every year and with the amount of plastic being produced rising (by 38% from 2004 to 2014) the problem is at a critical point.

MERI School

MERI School - Credit: Archant

A recent study carried out by scientists at Ghent University has estimated that those who enjoy their shellfish could be eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood every year and, in 2016, a report by Plymouth University concluded that plastic was found in a third of fish caught off the coast of the UK.

The race is on to raise awareness of the problem so that people can take action and one organisation, the Marine Education and Research Institute (MERI), is bringing its clean-up campaign to local shores, encouraging local youngsters to get involved and be the future guardians of the Blackwater.

The Blackwater Estuary is the largest in Essex and, as well as being used regularly by many water sports enthusiasts, is recognised as being of, ‘international conservation importance’. It is where countless wetland birds make the saltmarshes and tidal mudflats their home. Conservation of coastal habitats like these is high on the agenda of one Essex resident, who also happens to be a graduate in Marine Biology and Conservation.

Jacqui Monk

Jacqui Monk - Credit: Archant

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Jacqui Monk founder of The Marine Education and Research Institute was born in Basildon and as a child she would walk on the beaches by Bradwell Power Station, foraging on the coast and looking out for porpoises and seals. Even from that early age, she knew she wanted to study marine biology, but there were no facilities for her to develop and practise her skills.

Jacqui went on to successfully study Marine Biology and Conservation and, in February this year, she started her own project – the Marine School. Her aim is to help fulfil her quest to provide inspiration and hands-on experience for children keen to learn more about the coastal environment and marine life.

Her Marine Summer School, based in St Lawrence Bay, situated on the Blackwater Estuary in the district of Maldon, has recruited many local children into helping with beach cleans, but who are also working towards acquiring a Marine Explorer Passport, which is achieved by practising skills to achieve badges and certificates related to marine science and coding. These skills include identification, orienteering, recording data, identifying species and water testing.

MERI School

MERI School - Credit: Archant

Jacqui explains the positives of getting involved. ‘The school offers a great way to gain knowledge about marine life and conservation, and by gaining this education the young explorers, researchers and scientists will be keener to look after the environment in years to come,’ says Jacqui. ‘Working in this way and outdoors can help build confidence and a community spirit, as well as enhance general well-being.’

So what does Jacqui think about the statistics that show the amount of plastics being dumped in the sea is increasing and not going down in spite of campaigns encouraging people to be more waste aware?

‘It is hard for families to keep up with recycling when plastics are everywhere as part of packaging. It remains a challenge for everyone to think of ways to reduce usage as well as about the thoughtful disposal of rubbish. Younger children attending the school are asked to count the amount of plastics they come across on a daily basis and then think of ways to reduce this number.’

MERI School

MERI School - Credit: Archant

Jacqui is determined to extend the experience as far as she can and the project’s latest acquisition is an old bus which is being stripped and kitted out as a mobile science lab. ‘The intention is to tour schools, bringing the coast and conservation to them,’ she explains.

On August 26, the marine bus will be parked up at Maldon Promenade Park and will be a perfect opportunity for people to discover more about the work of MERI and how to get involved.

Also on that day, there will be a special opportunity for youngsters to take part in a project courtesy of Lizzie Carr, the first woman to cross the Channel on a paddle board. Lizzie, who describes herself as an adventurer and environmentalist, is committed to raising awareness of plastics pollution in the waters around our country.

In 2016 she paddle-boarded her way across England and was staggered by the extent of plastic waste that is choking many of our waterways. Lizzie will be holding plastic patrols during the summer at 12 different locations around the country, including St Lawrence Bay.

The event, being hosted by the Stone Sailing Club, is inviting young people to have a go at paddle-boarding while at the same time learning about the dangers of plastic pollution. Places, if still available, can be booked at

If these two determined women have their way, the young people of today could be responsible for bringing a much-needed change to the health of our waters and hopefully reversing some of the wrongs of the generations before them. Certainly, the wildlife and marine life of the Blackwater Estuary will be very grateful to them if they do

Follow the link for more info on the Marine Education and Research Institute


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