With their striking white-and-black coloring and breathtaking leaps in and out of the water, orcas – also known as killer whales – have long been a beloved icon of the Pacific Northwest. But due to vessel traffic noise and disturbance, toxic contaminants and especially the disappearance of their primary food source Chinook salmon, orcas that live in Puget Sound and the Pacific Coast have become critically endangered. The Southern Resident killer whales, once numbering around 200, have now declined to a mere 73 in the 2022 census, highlighting the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect these majestic creatures.
Enter Maanit Goel, a 17-year-old high school junior from Sammamish, Washington, whose curly hair and bright smile may lead one to think of him as a carefree, happy-go-lucky teen. But Maanit is anything but carefree, as his fervent passion for protecting not only orcas and salmon, but the entire planet, sets him apart.
On January 13 of this year, Maanit rallied more than 100 student and community activists to the steps of the Washington State Capitol in support of removing four dams on the lower Snake River, which experts say are impeding Chinook salmon migration to and from the ocean, thus harming the Orca population.
“Save the salmon! Save the salmon!” chanted Maanit along with his fellow youth activists, many of whom belong to the Washington Youth Ocean & River Conservation Alliance (WYORCA), an organization Maanit founded in January 2022.
“We need [Washington governor Jay] Inslee and the political leaders of the Pacific Northwest, specifically in the state Legislature, to understand the urgency of this issue. The salmon cannot wait,” he told local press.
As the president of WYORCA, Maanit travels to schools around the state to speak to K-12 students about the Snake River dam issue and other environmental concerns. He has spoken directly to about 1,700 students to date.
“By reaching younger students, it motivates them to get involved with environmental issues starting at a very early age,” Maanit said. “Even for me, when I first got involved with this movement, being able to see other students my age who were already involved drove me to take action for the environment.”
To ensure that his activism can create lasting change, Maanit joined the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council, through which he speaks to state legislators, whether that be through Zoom meetings or testifying in front of state Senate committees.
“In the past year or so, we’re seeing for the first time an openness from the legislative sphere to consider dam removal as an option,” Maanit said. “Our main message we’re trying to promote is that renewable energy at the cost of some species is not clean energy. So, if we truly want clean energy, it can’t be with these dams. That has been reflected in the statements made by policymakers in late 2022. In August 2022 specifically, Senator Murray and Governor Inslee released a commission report finding that dam removal is an economical option that will have significant impacts in conservation.”
In addition to Maanit’s dedication to protecting salmon and orca populations, he is also deeply committed to addressing the detrimental impact of palm oil-driven deforestation and the ethical implications associated with the industry. However, with no pictures of cute orca whales to captivate the interest of young students, Maanit had to think of another way to convey the complexities of the palm oil industry, deforestation and child labor. So he developed Pokok-Ed, an online game that allows players to assume the role of a plantation farmer in Indonesia or Malaysia and challenges them to keep their plantation running for as long as possible.
“The game helps the students empathize with the farmers and think about the logical reasons behind these practices and also experiment with different approaches to equitably combat deforestation and child labor,” Maanit said.
According to Maanit, the game and its corresponding lesson plan will be implemented into eight schools this academic year.
On top of his work with WYORCA and the Legislative Youth Advisory Council, Maanit chairs the Sammamish Youth Board, serves on the Project Green Schools’ National Youth Council and is a member of EarthEcho International’s Youth Leadership Council, through which he organized the first ever youth town hall for ocean policy with high-ranking NOAA officials, among many other achievements.
“Maanit is a massive leader for the group,” said Susie Hicks, online community coordinator for Earth Echo International. “He’s helped us create videos to welcome people to our online platform. He’s spoken on behalf of EarthEcho at IMPAC5. He also went to COP15, the UN’s biodiversity conference, and just met people and built the connections that EarthEco needed so we’re really grateful to have him be a part of our organization.”
“I feel grateful to know Maanit now because I think he’s just going to skyrocket as time goes on. If he’s able to accomplish this much when he’s 16, I’m so excited to see how he’s going to change the world,” Susie added.
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