Catherine Uden is usually up before dawn. By sunrise, she’s on the water on her standup paddleboard.
Sometimes, dolphins, manta rays, manatees, sharks and schools of fish will glide past her. Sometimes, she sees trash. The marine life is a beautiful sight to see. The trash, rather ugly. Both are reminders for why she’s on a mission to protect the ocean.
The FIU alumna never really set out to be an advocate for the environment. But today, she is the South Florida field representative for Oceana — the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation.
Uden grew up in Northern Virginia and moved to Miami after graduating high school. At FIU, she studied psychology and spent her free time outside, mostly at the beach.
“I fell in love with the ocean and realized this is where I wanted to be for the rest of my life. I needed to be by the water,” Uden said.
Initially, Uden thought she’d become a school counselor, but after graduating, decided she wanted to be a teacher. She returned to FIU, took education courses and earned her teaching certificate. For the next 15 years, she taught elementary school in the Broward County Public School System.
During this time, Uden started standup paddleboarding. It became her way to connect with nature and get exercise. One day, she saw an advertisement for a paddleboard race in Key West. Thinking it could be fun, she signed up. Uden brought home a medal for the 4-mile race. There were more competitions after that. Soon, even her husband and two sons started signing up for races.
All that time on the water made it hard to ignore the amount of garbage in the ocean. Uden started collecting piles of garbage from the intracoastal and paddled it to shore on her board.
She wanted to do more, so she volunteered with a local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Uden attended beach cleanups and eventually foundation meetings. She then became chair of the Surfrider Foundation Broward County Chapter, where she helped host cleanups and pass local ordinances prohibiting single use plastics.
Oceana took notice and suggested she apply for the South Florida Field Representative position.
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave teaching. Uden loved being in the classroom. But, she knew if she joined Oceana, she could still make a positive difference in the world.
At Oceana, Uden wears many hats. Some days, she is grassroots organizing and sharing information with the public about important issues. Other days, she meets with government officials to advocate for bills protecting the ocean — and she’s even invited some of those lawmakers to join her to go stand-up paddling. Uden is focused on preventing overfishing, stopping new offshore drilling, passing the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act and protecting marine species such as the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Uden’s helped pass dozens of local ordinances to cut down on single-use plastics. In her hometown of Hollywood, Fla., she discovered a decades-old, never-enforced law banning restaurants or cafés east of the intracoastal waterway from using single-use plastic foodware. She rallied to raise awareness and support for the law, and by the end of 2018, it was enforced.
“Beach cleanups are a great thing to do, because even one piece of plastic can kill an animal. When I can't paddle because the ocean is too rough, I walk the beach and pick up trash. But we're not going to solve the plastic pollution crisis through cleanups,” Uden said. “I am thankful to be able to spend more time impacting policy and legislation to reduce single use plastics at the source. The less that’s produced, sold, and distributed, the less that ends up in the environment.”
No matter what the day brings, Uden says she’s always relied on her teaching and psychology background, because her job involves engaging with the community and working with people from all different backgrounds. Those skills have helped her make a positive impact throughout South Florida.
While the sheer amount of trash Uden sees can sometimes feel overwhelming, it’s her main motivation to keep fighting plastic pollution.
“I have kids and I worry about this planet they are inheriting. I don’t want a world full of plastic, and I want them to have clean, healthy, beautiful oceans. So, the work is never done. There is always something else to fight."
For more information on volunteering with Oceana, contact Cat Uden at CUden@oceana.org.