Protecting wildlife and wild places is the vision of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Conservation is at the heart of the mission of AZA's 241 accredited aquariums and zoos. There's growing evidence that being a conservation leader–and being perceived as a leader by potential visitors, members and donors–is good for the planet and for the bottom line.
Aquariums that embrace their conservation identity are more attractive as a visitor destination, forge stronger ties with members and donors, and unlock new sources of revenue. They're doing so as they make a difference for the health of the ocean and freshwater systems and the wildlife that depend on them.
It's a direction The Ocean Project has encouraged among zoos and aquariums for more than two decades around issues like fisheries management and marine protected areas.
"The timing is great to advance conservation action, especially among younger, more diverse audiences," says its director, Bill Mott. "There's an incredible opportunity to become much bolder leaders for conservation."
Since 2017, the 24 AZA members of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) have stepped up their commitments–notably in the policy arena–and are reaping the benefits. Their success confirms what Monterey Bay Aquarium has heard from its market research firm, IMPACTS:
"The organizations perceived as best delivering on their missions and experiences financially outperform those not seen as delivering in mission-based areas. The entities that are more than an attraction have better revenue efficiencies and better financial health."
It's clear, said Mimi Hahn, Monterey's chief marketing officer: "For organizations with conservation missions, putting conservation first pays off."
This can range from promoting sustainable seafood and shifting away from single-use plastic in business operations to policy advocacy at the federal and state level. In March, ACP aquariums endorsed the federal Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act when it was introduced in Congress. Passage would, they affirmed, represent "bold action to reduce the causes of plastic pollution in aquatic ecosystems, in our communities, and beyond."
"Aquariums across the country are excited to take on the role of conservation advocates," said ACP Director Kim McIntyre. "By promoting conservation policies, making sustainable business commitments, and inspiring audiences to take action, they're building deeper ties within their communities and with their visitors."
Creating marine protected areas isn't universally popular. Nor is stepping up to advocate for sharks, the most demonized of ocean animals.
For the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass.; The New York Aquarium in New York, N.Y.; and the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., advocacy for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is paying big dividends, in a multitude of ways. And New York Aquarium not only took top honors from AZA for its Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit, it inspired visitors to make conservation commitments, and significantly increased attendance among key audiences.
New England Aquarium and Mystic Aquarium provided scientific justification for designation of the monument in 2016. All three aquariums are working to restore protections for the only marine monument in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean—considered vital to marine conservation on the East Coast.
In addition to rallying AZA colleagues, the aquariums engaged the public on the exhibit floor, via social media, and in op-eds.
At New England, more than 80 percent of surveyed visitors support marine protected areas, and those who heard conservation messaging about the monument were overwhelmingly likely to recommend the Aquarium to others. Mystic's involvement led to significant financial support for its Our Blue Park exhibit, designed to "bring the monument to the people."
"Time and time again, we find that, when presented with the science and the wonder of this region, people express an overwhelming commitment to protecting this and other special places in the ocean," said Katie Cubina, senior vice president of mission programs at Mystic.
"The monument deserves to be understood and protected," said Vikki Spruill, president and chief executive officer of the New England Aquarium. "Our research and advocacy work in this remarkable place allows us to educate visitors on the importance of ocean conservation, enforcing the message that we all have a role to play in protecting the blue planet."
New York Aquarium made inspiration and conservation of sharks globally the focus of its exhibit, with special attention to those just offshore, in the New York Bight. By telling a local story, it introduced New Yorkers to little-known marine ecosystems like the submarine Hudson Canyon and offered concrete ways for visitors to protect sharks and other ocean life. The exhibit's grand finale recreates the massive canyon, which has been nominated to become a marine sanctuary.
Compelling content—with conservation front and center—translated into a 200 percent increase in visitor engagements, and almost 100 percent feedback that ocean conservation issues presented in the exhibit were relevant to people's lives. Significant growth in school group visits, and in family and children's programs, leave the Aquarium better positioned to shape the conservation identity of a new generation.
"The exhibits forge an emotional connection between animals and visitors; an impactful moment for delivering on the conservation story," said Susan Chin, vice president of planning and design and chief architect for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y. "Visitors understand that sharks are local, they're important to the health of the ocean, and our everyday choices make a difference."
South Carolina Aquarium in Charlestown, S.C., and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla., are rooted in regional ecosystems, and regional conservation with a wider impact.
The Florida Aquarium is advancing restoration of the Florida Reef Tract. Its multifaceted conservation program uses the full spectrum of coral propagation and focuses on maintaining genetically diverse broodstocks in land-based nurseries, larval settlement of wild spawn, and groundbreaking induced spawning for multiple coral species. It advances its ultimate goal with significant out-plantings of genetically diverse species.
"Our resolve to save Florida's endangered coral reefs continues, and these breakthroughs by our coral experts provide hope for the future of coral reefs in our backyard and around the globe," said Roger Germann, the Aquarium's president and chief executive officer.
Its conservation work on corals and sea turtle rehabilitation has earned international media attention. These issues generate significantly higher engagement among social media followers than posts on more general topics. This, says Chief Operating Officer, Andy Wood, "helps build affinity for our conservation initiatives, and stewardship in the advancement of these efforts."
South Carolina Aquarium became a sanctuary for sea turtle rescue, rehabilitation, and release more than 20 years ago, and has been telling their stories ever since. The Sea Turtle Care Center™ is its cornerstone conservation program, calling attention to critical issues impacting wildlife and people, including climate change and plastic pollution.
Located on the Aquarium's main floor, the center captivates guests with the day-to-day work of the hospital and life-saving rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles. Social media followers connect through behind-the-scenes video, direct engagement with the Care Center team in live virtual visits, and long-form video that deepens the emotional connection.
"The true impact of our Care Center lies in the storytelling," said Courtenay Lewandowski, the Aquarium's senior director for strategy and advancement. "The marriage of innovative, world-class care and exquisitely crafted content—this is the powerful combination that shapes hearts and minds, and inspires lifelong engagement with our aquarium and with the natural world."
Away from the coast, aquariums engage audiences by celebrating and protecting freshwater ecosystems. In Dubuque, Iowa, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium focuses on mussels, monarch butterflies, and watershed conservation through its exhibits, education programs, and advocacy.
"People are awesome, and they want to be part of the solution," said Jared McGovern, the Aquarium's curator of conservation programs. "Over the past 18 months, that's how we've approached our identity as a community-based conservation organization."
Its strategic direction has earned it more visibility, helped it advance the work of conservation partners, and led directly to new financial support, notably for its freshwater mussel and monarch butterfly SAFE programs, and a growing youth stewardship program, Teens Take CAARE (Conservation Action through Advocacy Research and Engagement).
"We're community and capital conservation conveners with character on the Upper Mississippi River," said McGovern.
It was natural for the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., to focus on freshwater wildlife since it sits on the banks of the Tennessee River. Nearly 30 years later, tens of millions of guests have a new appreciation for fresh water as the region's most important resource and have learned that Chattanooga is situated in the heart of an underwater rainforest.
The southeastern United States is home to the highest diversity of freshwater species in the temperate world, including 662 of the continent's 905 native fish species, more than half the nation's turtles, and nearly all its salamanders, freshwater mussels, and crayfishes. Many are among the world's most vulnerable animals.
"Our team takes great pride in educating guests about the beautiful aquatic animals in our region," said Dr. Anna George, vice president of conservation science and education. "We want them to appreciate them not only as integral links in the web of life, but as part of our cultural heritage."
Visitors then want to know what's being done to protect the colorful darters, native trout, and living fossils like the titanic lake sturgeon. That drives support for Tennessee Aquarium's freshwater research and restoration programs.
"When our guests learn what we're doing in the field to save endangered species, their aquarium experience changes," said President and Chief Executive Officer, Keith Sanford. "They recognize that we play a vital role in collaborative conservation efforts in our region, and they want to become part of that success story."
"Independent research now shows that the Tennessee Aquarium is viewed by the public as a nonprofit conservation organization worthy of support," he added.
In Chicago, Shedd Aquarium is finding ways to motivate and mobilize a public eager to be part of the solution to the planet's greatest environmental threats. It builds conservation into its programming as it fosters a bond with Chicago-area residents. The result? Healthier local waterways and a healthier, more resilient Aquarium.
Kayak for Conservation, which brings people onto the Chicago River—a polluted and neglected ecosystem at the heart of the city—demonstrates a commitment to diversify its audience, contribute to research and habitat restoration, develop community relationships, and build public affinity for wildlife.
Participants learn about the river's history, pick up litter, and monitor animals utilizing new habitats created by Shedd and its partners. It's one of many new and planned neighborhood-focused programs.
In 2020, most participants were new to Shedd programs and few were members—though many said they now have a much more positive impression. As one said: "I'm not big on zoos or aquariums, despite knowing all the good they do. This experience has changed my opinion. I look forward to engaging more with Shedd and becoming a member."
"In an increasingly urbanized world—one in which nature plays a powerful role in our collective post-pandemic healing and recovery—we must create more opportunities to provide transformative interactions unbound by walls, geographies, economic and cultural barriers, or abilities," said Andrea Rodgers, Shedd Aquarium's senior vice president of external affairs and marketing.
For the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., advocating for ocean conservation is a pillar of their identities—and has strengthened their appeal among visitors and funders.
In 1996, Monterey Bay simplified its mission statement to "inspire conservation of the ocean" when its Open Sea wing debuted. Three years later, it created the Seafood Watch program, which has grown from U.S.-based consumer engagement to a movement that's transforming seafood supply chains around the world.
It created its ocean policy program in 2004, and helped California shape the nation's first science-based network of marine protected areas, and endorsed legislation that outlawed the shark fin trade and single-use plastic shopping bags. With National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., and Shedd, it established the Aquarium Conservation Partnership in 2016—engaging colleagues nationwide to shift away from single-use plastic and advocate on issues ranging from federal plastics legislation to sustainable fisheries management and safeguarding marine protected areas.
"I believe that people everywhere are desperately seeking a common vision of a sustainable future on Earth, one that's practical, attainable and to which they can contribute," said Executive Director, Julie Packard. "Aquariums can offer these key elements, which is why people are looking to us for direction. By understanding our audiences wherever we are, we can craft meaningful ways to respond to their interests and their desires to be part of the solution to the global environmental crisis. There's no time to lose."
Seattle Aquarium is on a similar path, with a similar mission—inspiring conservation of our marine environment. It leads conservation engagement programs with partners around the state, advances research and field conservation efforts in local waters and across the Pacific, and launched a science-based policy and advocacy program in 2018. As it began construction of its Ocean Pavilion, it launched a species recovery program focused on bringing animals back from the brink of extinction, leveraging its unique strengths and expertise.
It has championed legislation in Washington state to recover resident orcas in Puget Sound and reduce sources of plastic pollution. It convenes symposiums on microplastic pollution and to advance research and recovery of sharks, octopuses, sea otters, and sea stars. And it joined a statewide coalition to advance environmental justice by endorsing the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act and worked to pass climate legislation in the state.
"There is no question our ocean is in trouble," said Aquarium President and Chief Executive Officer, Bob Davidson. "Sometimes the problems can seem overwhelming, but as Sylvia Earle has said, 'Our past, our present, and whatever remains of our future, absolutely depend on what we do now.' In all that we do, the Aquarium aspires to turn knowledge into inspiration and move people to action."
Hero Photo Credit: ©The Florida Aquarium.
Ken Peterson is senior communications strategist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.