Blog

Aquariums as a Force for Change: New Roles in Conservation and Social Impact

By Julie Packard
From ASTC Dimensions
September/October 2009

The last quarter century has brought with it unprecedented and disturbing changes in the health of our aquatic environment, from the collapse of fisheries to dead zones in the oceans. In response, aquariums worldwide have evolved in their missions, and many of us have launched initiatives to advance our conservation role by promoting public awareness of environmental issues and undertaking field conservation work. Some of us have taken our mission a step further, moving from informing and engaging people to mobilizing them to take action on behalf of conservation.

In 2004, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, California, took a bold step in this direction when we launched a new policy and advocacy center, the Center for the Future of the Oceans. Our experiences to date may serve as a useful roadmap for other institutions as they consider expanding their role in conservation and other issues of broad public concern.

Launching the Center

Unlike the mission of the aquarium itself (to inspire conservation of the oceans), we launched the Center for the Future of the Oceans with a mission to inspire action on behalf of the oceans. A set of key questions informed by thought leaders in the field of conservation guided the center’s initial work: What can an aquarium contribute to an otherwise crowded field of conservation players? Which issues are both important and also ripe for action? What resonates with our audience and connects to our on-site experience?

The creation of an aquarium-based conservation advocacy center was not without risk. We realized that people might not welcome our increased focus on conservation messages. Our visitors might not want to get personally involved with conservation action, or they might look to other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for this guidance. Some visitors and donors might disagree with our points of view or feel we should not be taking positions on issues. And this new focus might distract from the core business of ensuring that our aquarium continued to thrive. As our work unfolded, none of these issues turned out to be barriers; instead, the public response was overwhelmingly positive.

Our first major policy focus was to promote implementation of marine protected areas in U.S. state and federal waters. We had the opportunity to support a groundbreaking state law—the California Marine Life Protection Act—that mandated creation of a network of marine protected areas along the entire coast of California, a first in the United States. Our involvement ranged from providing our policy staff’s input on legal language to engaging our visitors to send more than 20,000 postcards to the governor in favor of new marine protected areas.

The second focus was sustainable seafood. Based on an exhibition we opened in 1997 that highlighted global fisheries’ problems and solutions, we launched Seafood Watch, an informational pocket guide to sustainable seafood choices. The guide and our sustainable seafood outreach program are now part of a global movement to change how fisheries operate. Together with other U.S. aquariums, NGO collaborators, and sustainability certification systems like the Marine Stewardship Council, we’re driving change in the way major U.S. seafood buyers do business. Results to date include commitments from big seafood buyers like Aramark and a growing family of celebrity chefs who work to share their convictions about the importance of fishing and farming sustainably.

A third policy focus was conservation and restoration of key threatened marine wildlife species in our care—in particular, sea otters, tunas, and sharks. Our conservation field research program had been under way for many years, but until we created the Center for the Future of the Oceans, we did not have the policy expertise to convert these scientific findings into action on behalf of wildlife conservation. For example, today we are working in partnership with advocacy NGOs to improve management regimes for threatened Atlantic bluefin tuna, to turn around the 90 percent population decline of what is now the world’s most valuable fish. A fourth area of focus—climate change and the oceans—is now in development as well.

Our vehicles for action have been both “grassroots” and “grasstops.” We created a group called the Ocean Action Team—now over 19,000 strong—to enable our visitors to participate in policy issues on an ongoing basis by signing up through our web site or on the exhibit floor. At the higher level, our trustees are helping to promote our issues based on their expertise, from a fisherman who guided language for marine protected areas to a former member of Congress who made visits to Capitol Hill.

Public perceptions

Starting in 2007, we undertook an ambitious public opinion research effort to guide our next steps for outreach and advocacy. We began by studying attitudes and awareness of our current and potential members through Internet-based surveys conducted by IMPACTS Research. These studies yielded some surprising results.

Even though we are first and foremost an aquarium, many people think of us as an ocean conservation organization. In an open-ended question, respondents listed us in the top 10 ocean conservation organizations, alongside NGOs such as Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy.

Of course, the public also continues to think of us as an aquarium, and in this regard we actually have two personas: an attraction and a trusted authority. In California and the western United States, our brand recognition as an attraction is strongest, but our authority brand extends nationally. We already have a large number of people who are members but never visit us, and there is significant potential for this national constituency to grow. In fact, the majority of responding members said the primary benefit of membership in the Monterey Bay Aquarium is feeling that they contribute positively to the conservation of the world’s oceans.

The research also showed that Seafood Watch has surprisingly large awareness levels across the nation. What began as a modest outreach program has mushroomed through the distribution of millions of pocket guides through aquariums and other institutions nationwide, a major effort to garner national coverage in the food media, and other outreach activities. Along with direct impact on the practices of restaurant owners and big buyers, Seafood Watch is a portal to engaging people in broader conservation issues facing our oceans.

A framework for the future

In the past, we have thought of our conservation advocacy and policy work as an add-on to the education and research programs that are considered an essential part of most modern aquariums. Today, guided by our new thinking, our conservation work is an essential part of our business strategy for the future.

We must remain attentive to maintaining our reputation as one of the world’s great aquariums, continuing our investment in husbandry research and development and engaging people in new ways through our exhibits. But our ability to grow attendance at our site is limited by a high level of repeat visitation and stable population growth among likely paying guests.

If we want to engage more people as contributors to, and active supporters of, our conservation mission, we must move our focus far beyond our walls. This will require a stronger emphasis on Internet communications, and a new more integrated approach to outreach across our workgroups.

Our ultimate goal as an aquarium is to build a constituency that will work to protect and restore the world’s aquatic ecosystems, which sustain all life. Engaging and activating people in a meaningful, long-term relationship may take many forms, whether we are asking them to visit, give, or act.

These forms of engagement are mutually reinforcing. Visits can motivate action when visitors are inspired to adopt a personal conservation behavior during their visit or to join our Ocean Action Team. Action can motivate visits when a Seafood Watch pocket guide stimulates a dinner table conversation, and friends learn about the aquarium and its work. Doing meaningful conservation work that builds brand loyalty and respect is the best business investment we can make.

Implications for the broader museum community

What can the broader museum community learn from our experience at Monterey Bay Aquarium? Our experience and recent research examining public attitudes about the role of zoos, aquariums, and museums in environmental action provide clear direction.

First and foremost, people expect our institutions not only to inform but also to guide; they are seeking information they can trust in a sea of communication media. Regarding environmental issues, they believe their actions can make a difference, and they would like us to suggest specific things they can do toward this end. Young people know and care more about the environment than do adults; they are more willing to act, and they influence opinions of their parents. These findings present clear opportunities for us all.

All of these factors provide compelling reasons why I believe the time has come for our institutions—from zoos to aquariums to science museums—to mobilize for broader social impact, whether our issue is the environment or the quality of K–12 science education or how evolution is taught in our schools.

Regardless of our varied locations, institutional cultures, or community backdrop, I believe that people everywhere are desperately seeking a common vision of a sustainable future on Earth, one that is practical and attainable and that they can contribute to realizing. While our underlying concerns may vary, people everywhere hold in common a quest for integrity and a yearning for hope that they can make the world a better place.

Aquariums and other informal science institutions can offer these key elements. By understanding our audiences wherever we are, we can craft meaningful ways to respond to their interests and their desire to be part of the solution to the global environmental and social crises in which we find ourselves. Building on a strong reputation, we can have a much bigger impact. With so many issues at stake that require scientific understanding and action, there is no time to lose. It’s time to stretch our wings.

Julie Packard is executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California. The author thanks Jim Hekkers, Monterey Bay Aquarium managing director; Scott Corwon, principal of IMPACTS Research; and the aquarium senior staff for their essential contributions to the work described here. This article is based on a paper presented at the 2008 International Aquarium Congress in Shanghai, China. For more information on the Center for the Future of Oceans and the Ocean Project public opinion research, visit www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cffo.asp or www.theoceanproject.org.