One Voice

June 2017

By Mary Ellen Collins

Aquarium Conservation Partners Take Action

Timing is everything.  It was almost a decade ago when leaders at Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., first reached out to colleagues at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., about the idea of bringing aquariums together to advance ocean and freshwater policy goals.

“Conservation leaders at the three organizations met to talk about collaborating, especially around federal issues, and to advocate not just for funding, but for protection and management policies,” said Aimee David, director of ocean conservation policy strategies at Monterey Bay Aquarium.  “But it was right before the 2008 recession hit, and when we went back to our institutions, the idea didn’t get a lot of traction.”

Things changed as the years passed. “We saw that the trend of aquariums owning our own conservation authority was continuing to grow,” said David. “Our audiences were expecting us to take action on issues, and they appreciated it when we did.”

So in late 2014, leaders from the three aquariums took their idea off the back burner, explored general interest among other chief executive officers, and hired a consultant to test the idea with stakeholders. Results revealed that it would be considered a value-add on if aquariums came together as a new voice to take concerted actions on policy-related issues. And with that green light, the three aquariums moved ahead with the consultant’s recommendation that they create a two-year pilot project called the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP).  David serves as chair, and funding comes primarily from the three founding members, each of which contributed $40,000; along with $20,000 from each of the 18 aquariums that have since joined the ACP.

In Charleston, S.C., Al George recommended joining the group shortly after being hired as South Carolina Aquarium’s first ever director of conservation. “When my CEO and I were discussing the value of joining the ACP, I said ‘Each region and every municipality has its own unique elements, so it’s very wise to be in tune with your own local community. Joining the ACP is an opportunity for us to inform the national discussion and be mindful of how we amplify our own voice in our community.’”

The Action Agenda  

The three ACP founding members developed a Conservation Action Agenda based on numerous discussions with colleagues as well as conservation and policy leaders.  The agenda has four priority areas: plastic pollution, sustainable seafood, ecosystem protection, and shark and ray conservation.  Reducing the sources of ocean and freshwater plastic pollution became the primary goal on which the ACP has taken a proactive approach.

“The days of going it on your own are over,” said Kris Hoellen, senior vice president/chief conservation officer at the National Aquarium. “While we’re focusing on plastics, as issues come up in the other three areas, we will let all aquariums know.

For the other three areas, the ACP serves as an informational clearinghouse that keeps aquariums informed about conservation and policy-related actions that are already underway in areas that that affect them.

“The days of going it on your own are over,” said Kris Hoellen, senior vice president/chief conservation officer at the National Aquarium. “While we’re focusing on plastics, as issues come up in the other three areas, we will let all aquariums know.  If someone passes legislation at the state level, we make sure other aquariums are aware so they can offer support or maybe learn a lesson.  It’s also a way to share our successes.”

David provided one example, which involves sharing information in support of new protections for ecosystem areas, including Marine National Monuments and National Marine Sanctuaries. “The ACP coordinated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and The Ocean Project to share messaging concepts and social media strategies with ACP aquariums to engage audiences in support of the designation of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. ACP members submitted a joint letter of support for the designation of the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, and joined in a letter of support for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. And ACP member the Wildlife Conservation Society/New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, N.Y., submitted a proposal to designate the Hudson Canyon as a National Marine Sanctuary.”

The Plastics Plan

David describes 2016 as a research and development year in which the ACP members learned as much as they could about the plastics issue. The year culminated in a three-day symposium in December that was open to conservation and program leaders at all AZA-accredited aquariums. The gathering featured presentations on the latest scientific research on plastics pollution, potential solutions and ways in which aquariums could generate positive action among their stakeholders. With a goal of increasing alternatives to single use plastics and catalyzing broader solutions to plastic pollution, ACP members created an action plan that consists of three pillars or strategies: Consumer, Business and Policy.

Gull on beach with plastic bottle © Thinkstock

Facilitating Positive Change 

ACP’s consumer and business strategies are designed to raise awareness among aquarium visitors as well as vendors, encouraging them to make more conservation-minded decisions regarding single-use plastics. The group hired Blue State Digital to develop a consumer initiative that is designed to move people from awareness to action. The initiative will include messaging that can be incorporated into anything from signage to social media to merchandising, and once it is complete, all AZA-accredited aquariums will have access to it.

ACP members have also committed to modeling environmentally responsible behavior, thereby setting an example for their visitors as well as the companies with which they do business.

“National Aquarium has long been walking this talk,” said Hoeller. “In 2014, we stopped selling commercial bottled water, and over the last four years we’ve sold more than 65,000 reusable water bottles.  You need consumer demand to get manufacturing to change. If consumers say, ‘I don’t want these products,’ manufacturing will say, ‘this is now starting to have an impact, and we need to do something.’”

Bridget Coughlin, president and chief executive officer at Shedd Aquarium agrees that demonstrating best practices is a critical part of this effort. “We’re asking our members to do what we do. We want to be practitioner leaders, not just thought leaders. It’s much more authentic and it’s the right thing to do. At Shedd we have long had a sustainable platform focused on energy and water conservation and now we’re adding single use plastics. We're in conversation with vendors about things like plastic wrap around pallets of food, and they’ve been fantastic. Event Network has already reduced the amount of plastic on their own and Sodexo is also working with us on this issue. There are financial, operational and contractual ramifications to doing this, but we need to be able to look colleagues in the eye and say we are committed.”

Moving Into Policy 

Of all three strategies involved in the plastics campaign, the longest learning curve is in the advocacy area.  “Aquariums have long since done conservation education and conservation research, but ACP is adding to our professional repertoire and allowing us to step into the conversation around advocacy and action in a thoughtful way,” said Coughlin. “We’re not quite sure how to do that. Conservation advocacy is huge and complex.  We need to break it down into small, measurable, actionable items that organizations of our size can do. The original idea was to keep it [the program] small enough to keep it nimble, get traction, get something done, and then expand and scale.”

Although policy change is likely to stay at the local and state level for now, according to David, the South Carolina Aquarium has already demonstrated what a localized grassroots effort can accomplish.

“People have a real love and affinity for sea turtles,” said George, “and we’ve told them that Marsh, one of the turtles at our Sea Turtle Hospital Recovery Center, had more than 100 pieces of plastic in his digestive tract. We don’t have a lobbyist, but we can tell our story. By being the voice of these charismatic megafauna, we’ve been able to advance the knowledge of the detrimental effect of plastics and support locally based policy initiatives like enacting plastic bag bans. This is so human driven. This is something we can do something about.”

Thanks to the concerted efforts of The South Carolina Aquarium and organizations including Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League, several municipalities convinced local officials to enact a ban on the plastic bags.

The ACP has already motivated change and demonstrated the strength in numbers that comes from rallying around a common cause—proof that the concept is a good one. Before the pilot program ends in December, members will evaluate its impact success by measuring:

(1) the number of new alternatives introduced in the marketplace

(2) the number of consumers who pledge to choose alternatives

(3) the number of aquariums that phase out single-use plastic, all or partial

(4) the number of other facilities that join aquariums in phasing out single-use plastic

(5) the number of policies enacted to reduce single-use plastic and incentivize alternatives

(6) the number of new scientific reports on causes and impacts

Representatives from all three founding facilities are unanimous in hoping that their efforts support a decision to move forward with the program, and they are optimistic about what they can achieve. 

“Even with just 21 members, we estimate that we can reach 25 million people,” said Hoellen.  “If we can work together we can be a very powerful voice for the marine environment.”

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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