INLET BEACH — Lionfish aren't the only things invading the waters of the Emerald Coast.
To make a stand against plastic pollution, Ohana Institute recently created the first of an upcoming line of sculptures set to be displayed in Rosemary Beach.
Opening May 24, the Rosemary Beach Sculpture Exhibition will feature 16 new sculptures selected from 53 artists across 20 states.
Leading the pack is Ohana's rendition of a lionfish. The sculpture was the first of the new lineup to be installed and was unveiled on Earth Day. It's made from plastics gathered from across the Gulf Coast and other single-use plastics students might have otherwise thrown away.
"It gives me goose bumps to see that it actually worked, (and) that people are looking at it and they're getting the message," said Mike Sturdivant, science teacher at Ohana. "You'll see things that you actually use. ... We're not innocent here, but that's part of the thing to draw people in and get them thinking."
According to Julie Martin, fine arts director at Ohana, exhibit officials invited the school to be a part of their 2019 selections after word got out that Martin and Sturdivant attended a Washed Ashore workshop — a nonprofit organization working to spread plastic pollution awareness — and were creating smaller, recycled sculptures with their students.
They decided to model their entree after a lionfish, which like plastics, has invaded the Gulf of Mexico.
Throughout the two month process leading up to Invasive being displayed at South Barrett Square, the teachers said they watched their students gain a newfound appreciation for environmental preservation.
"I think at first we realized they were kind of not aware of how bad it's become because I think plastic has just increased so rapidly in the last few years it's just common that they use it," Martin said.
In its eighth year of operation, Ohana recently moved from Rosemary Beach to Inlet Beach. The teachers said that in the past they've tried to cut down on the amount of plastics offered to their students. With this move, faculty decided to remove them completely.
"It was an incredible thing to be in our building for the first years over here and to still be able to partner with Rosemary," Martin said. "That still really feels like our neighborhood home."
A main concern for both were the effects micro plastics have on the ecosystem. These finely broken down plastics contain high levels of toxins, they said, which are eaten by marine life and then passed up the food chain.
Their hope was to help others understand the severity of plastic pollution and inspire them to take action.
"(Plastic) may break down into smaller pieces, but those pieces are still in the environment. ... It will have a significant, long-term effect on animals, and eventually, if not already, it will have a long-term effect on us," Sturdivant said.