Chattanooga nine-year-old Cash Daniels has made quite a splash in his year as an aquatic conservationist.
There was the national award, visit to teach local schoolchildren, city council recycling presentation, shout-out from actor Mark Wahlberg, the launch of his own company and now, an independently published book.
Cash has long been interested in freshwater and saltwater biology, garnering an admiration for aquatic species throughout the majority of his life.
"I've loved fish since I was a little kid," he said. "Once I learned about what was happening to our rivers and oceans, I wanted to do more."
Cash knew other kids could help in his quest. Litter cleanups can be done by anyone, and he wanted to spread the word. He chose to write and illustrate a book, titled "One Small Piece," highlighting how one child can make a difference.
The book focuses on a family vacation to Florida where he and his brother, Colt, found trash impacting their favorite sea creatures. The thought of polluted waterways stuck with Cash as he returned to Chattanooga, and the young soon-to-be conservationist wanted to help. When he came home, he learned about a study that found an alarming amount of microplastics in the Tennessee River. He decided he was going to keep the river as clean as he could, one small piece at a time.
"There weren't any books about cleaning up the river," Cash said. "There were a bunch about cleaning the ocean, but 80% of ocean trash comes from rivers."
The book ends with Cash encouraging other children to help and provides a guide for their own cleanups.
Four years ago, Cash went to a Tennessee Aquarium lecture about the river giant arapaimas — which he aptly describes as "fish shaped like torpedoes that jump in the air." He met "Miss Nicki," senior aquarist Nikki Eisenmenger, who helps run the off-site Aquarium Care Facility. She took an interest in the young boy who asked astute questions.
The two struck a friendship, and Cash became a regular at aquarium events. He would help feed fish, took part in a sturgeon release and attended other fish-related events in the coming years.
"The passion he has for conservation and the environment and fish, I don't think I've ever seen passion like that in anybody — and I work with a lot of passionate people," Eisenmenger said.
In those years, however, he learned of the threat of plastic pollution. He read books on the subject, saw television programs and talked to aquatic biologists who warned him of the dangers. He became especially concerned after the microplastics study and wanted to help.
He began writing letters to businesses urging them to reduce plastic waste by offering paper straws — which led to the video posted by Mark Wahlberg, who owns Wahlburgers burger restaurant. He launched his business, Conservation Kid, last year to sell reusable bags made out of T-shirts, reusable straw holders and other items.
He took part in a river cleanup last April at Harrison Bay and became a regular at other cleanups. He is also the youngest Tennessee resident to adopt a river mile in the state's program to clean waterways.
"He is very focused on the litter issue, but he also wanted to learn about everything else," TenneSEA Executive Director Mary Beth Sutton, who led a few of the cleanups Cash took part in, said. "I think that's what impressed me most. He is very focused on litter and the issues that causes, but his mind is very actively learning."
For his efforts, Cash was one of 20 kids nationwide to receive the TruStage Insurance Agency's Community Spark Award. The award recognized children 17 and younger who were actively working to improve their communities through volunteer and community service activities.
The award came with a $1,000 prize, which Cash chose to donate to 1 Piece Each, a Florida nonprofit group raising awareness about the effects humans have on the planet. The group had donated buckets for Cash's river cleanups.
"It's encouraging that kids can be off of video games and other devices and be interested in something that matters," his mom, Erin Daniels, said.
The book was published April 5 and is sold at A Little Bookish in Ooltewah, Star Line Books in Chattanooga, the local Barnes & Noble, and on Amazon.
A Little Bookish will host a book launch party Monday at 6:30 p.m.