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Putting Aquariums on the Front Line of Ocean Activism

Visited by millions of people, aquariums are in a unique position to help fight overfishing and plastic pollution, says Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in the Great Tide Pool at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.©Corey Arnold

Since it opened in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has become a leader in ocean conservation, educating more than 2 million visitors a year. At the helm as executive director since the aquarium’s founding has been Julie Packard, a marine biologist trained at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on the other side of Monterey Bay.

Packard is the daughter of David Packard, the philanthropist and cofounder of pioneering Silicon Valley technology firm Hewlett-Packard. David and his wife Lucile Packard financed the construction of the aquarium, which sits on a spectacular stretch of the central California coast adjacent to the mile-deep offshore Monterey Canyon. The aquarium’s research has been focused on sea otters, Pacific bluefin tuna and great white sharks, but the institution is probably best known for Seafood Watch, a science-based consumer guide to sustainably harvested fish.

In 1987, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation funded the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to develop new technologies for deep-sea exploration and science. Julie Packard serves as the chair of MBARI’s board of directors.

Oceans Deeply met up with Packard at the recent United Nations Ocean Conference, where more than 4,000 national leaders, diplomats, scientists and advocates gathered in New York City to hammer out ways to achieve a set of sustainable development goals to protect the marine environment from overfishing, pollution and climate change.

Oceans Deeply: How do you see the role of aquariums, and Monterey Bay Aquarium specifically, in helping to achieve the sustainable development goals for the ocean?

Julie Packard: Monterey Aquarium’s mission is to promote conservation of the ocean and I’ve always had the vision that aquariums could become a force for conservation and not just a museum or an attraction. So we’re working to get other aquariums involved in not only informing and inspiring people about ocean conservation but engaging them in the actual policy work by mobilizing everyone’s visitors and constituents around taking action on behalf of the ocean.

One of the things Monterey has been a leader in, and probably our most visible program, is Seafood Watch. We’re involved with a multi-stakeholder effort to get businesses to make commitments around the sustainability of the tuna fisheries in the Pacific and that’s something we’ve been working on for many years. The aquarium has funded a lot of research and satellite tagging of tuna populations.

That led us to realize that we needed to get involved in policy work. Pacific bluefin right now are at just 3 percent of their virgin biomass and that [97 percent] decline has happened literally in just the past 10 or 15 years. We let a lot of fisheries get depleted far beyond what we should have. The Pacific bluefin has disappeared in a blink of an eye because of the fishing pressure and the way we fish.

Oceans Deeply: What types of businesses are involved in this effort?

Packard: Our Seafood Watch model started with the idea of helping consumers become aware of where their fish comes from, the state of global fisheries and creating more demand for sustainable seafood. We use that to bring business to the table to say that if you want to make a commitment to sustainability, we’ll help you get there. The aquarium and other NGO players have been working with major businesses to make sustainability commitments and help them source more sustainable seafood.

We focus on the food service sector, which brings in massive amounts of seafood, especially in the U.S. Americans love to eat out and we also don’t cook that much seafood at home. The food service sector is a huge way to get leverage. It’s companies like Aramark, for example, and Compass Group. They’re some of the largest food service companies in the world and they have made commitments to get all the unsustainable seafood off their menus and also train their staff, report on how they’re doing, be accountable and, most importantly, join with us to ask government to take policy action.

Oceans Deeply: How are businesses going to determine whether tuna is sustainably sourced in their supply chains?

Packard: This matter of traceability is a huge issue. There’s a lot of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing that has been in the news the past couple of years. It turns out that tracing the piece of seafood on your plate from the boat where it was caught all the way through the whole supply chain can be done. The seafood industry has some of the most complex supply chains of any commodity, though I don’t like to call seafood a commodity, as it’s living wildlife we’re eating.

Some smaller importers are vertically integrated – they own the boat and control where the fishing is happening. That means they’re controlling how the seafood gets from wherever it is caught to where it ends up being put in a package. They can actually barcode the point of origin, the boat and the date. That whole idea needs to be scaled up.

There’s a huge data-management aspect to that which everyone is talking about a lot. Who is going to be in charge of all the information and making sense of it and calling out where problems occur and of course, most importantly, who is in charge of enforcement?

Oceans Deeply: Is MBARI focused on that data challenge?

Packard: MBARI was founded as an institution to develop new technologies, my father being an engineer. After we opened the aquarium, he was thinking, OK, what’s the next thing? He had become fascinated with the ocean and he gathered a bunch of ocean scientists together to talk about what research we could do here in Monterey Bay.

They all said you have this deep-sea canyon here right next to shore but they also talked about how they were using cast-off military technology and no one was dedicating themselves to getting into the deep sea to monitor it long term. That’s been MBARI’s mission. Data management is front and center. The science community has generated so much data that the central issue everybody is thinking about is how is it going to be collated, analyzed, synthesized and summarized in a way that policymakers [can] do something with it.

An example of the remarkable new information that we’re starting to get across the broad ocean that we didn’t used to have is that there’s a big global network of ocean-monitoring floats that sample water chemistry. And one of the instruments that MBARI invented now enables us to automatically monitor nitrogen levels. Nitrogen is a huge anthropogenic input in the ocean and that also links to productivity and phytoplankton health. So this is a huge, huge breakthrough in terms of being able to measure the health of the ecosystem. They further worked on new ocean pH meters, so now these systems are going to monitor pH. We actually just got a big grant with a lot of collaborators to get more of these monitoring devices deployed in the Southern Ocean, which is going to be a huge area of impact in terms of climate change.

So there is a lot of interest in the data issue and a lot of data-related tech companies are now being drawn in. MBARI has been working with some of the Google team on machine learning to see if there’s a way to analyze the videos that MBARI collects without needing a warm body to sit and annotate them. I’m hoping that some of the tech leaders that are interested in the future of the ocean can deploy their time and talent and teams to help solve this problem.

Oceans Deeply: The aquarium has also made ocean plastic pollution a priority.

Packard: Ocean plastic really has become a central message for us that just makes sense for an aquarium. Seafood Watch has been tremendously successful because it connects people with their everyday choices and they can feel like they’re taking action and spreading the word, driving market change. Plastics have the same capacity because obviously all the plastic in the ocean starts with us.

The big thing we’re doing around plastics to step it up a notch: I long had this vision if we could mobilize the aquariums of the U.S. and all of their constituents around some ocean conservation issues we really could have a collective impact. So we founded, along with the National Aquarium of Baltimore and the Shedd Aquarium of Chicago, this new aquarium conservation partnership, which is now a group of 20 aquariums that have committed together to identify conservation action topics they want to mobilize around and ocean plastics is their first one.

We’re launching a public awareness campaign this summer, asking people to take action in their personal lives. In the U.S. each of us uses an average 220lb [100kg] of plastic every year. What is that even for? How much is that even necessary?

Oceans Deeply: As with seafood, do you see plastics as fundamentally a supply chain issue?

Packard: Yes, and one of the things the aquarium group is doing is to get single-use plastics out of our institutions. Together, we host millions and millions of people on vacation and there’s a ton of throwaway food products that are part of that whole picture.

We are all working on setting an example. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we’re very excited that our beverage case is completely plastic-free now and we got rid of disposable cups years ago in our restaurant. We’re working with colleague aquariums on a commitment date when we can all agree that we will be free of plastic carryout bags. Many of the institutions already are and we certainly are. There’s also the straws. You got to walk the talk but also it’s a real education for people who are visiting. Many of the aquariums have beverage contracts with many of the big companies and hopefully it will start a conversation.

Oceans Deeply: The United States government has had little presence at the U.N. Ocean Conference. Has that made it more important for aquariums and other civil society groups to step up to the plate?

Packard: Absolutely. It’s time now more than ever for civil society to step up and also for states and the international community to step up. Circulating around the conference and hearing the commitments that countries large and small are making and states in the U.S. such as California and the NGOs and the research community is remarkable. That’s going to lead the way. I’m very pleased to see the commitment and the progress.

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