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Aquariums: Leaders in Conservation Action

By Brad Converse, AIA

Welcoming millions of visitors through their doors annually, aquariums are in a unique position to reach the public and promote protection of the aquatic environment. The animals living at these aquariums amaze and engage visitors, forging an emotional connection with the power to inspire long-term, pro-conservation behavior. Through promotion of their conservation policies, making sustainable business commitments, and inspiring audiences to act, aquariums are building deeper ties with their visitors, and in turn, within their communities.

It is these actions, along with compelling, conservation-focused exhibit content and educational programming, that have cemented an affinity within their local community that their aquarium is a trusted, science-backed conservation organization.

Leveraging their community stature, aquariums are partnering to raise a collective voice on important marine and freshwater policy and decision-making. Since 2017, the 27 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited members of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership have enthusiastically ramped up their activism for new models of conservation, essential protections and public policy. All organisms living on the Blue Planet – including us – are already reaping the rewards such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and more vibrant fisheries.

Aquarium-led public advocacy can range from promoting sustainable fisheries, endorsing the shift away from single-use plastic, advancing conservation and environmental justice legislation, and the creation of protected areas. Across the country, notable successes include:

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  • Seafood Watch, one of the most-visible initiatives of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is a global leader in the sustainable seafood movement, offering science-based seafood recommendations for businesses, chefs, and consumers to select responsibly-farmed and sustainably-sourced seafood for their restaurants, stores, and homes. By encouraging people to make informed decisions about their seafood, aquariums help support fisheries that don’t deplete populations or harm the environment.
  • Seattle Aquarium, in partnership with a statewide coalition, advanced environmental justice by endorsing, and advocating for passage of, climate legislation in Washington state. The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act requires state departments to identify and address environmental health disparities in overburdened communities and underserved populations through community collaboration, equitable investment and environmental justice to improve human health.
  • Tennessee Aquarium, and its Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, are leading the charge in protecting the highly diverse, freshwater ecosystems of the southeastern United States. Initiatives include the Southeastern Freshwater Biodiversity Conservation Strategy, a synthesis that identifies management actions and policy recommendations for areas with high capacities for community improvements where additional financial resources can be leveraged quickly, as well as areas with higher needs – yet lower capacity – where a long-term strategy is necessary.
  • The National Aquarium, along with local partner organizations, has acted on its mission to “inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures” by supporting legislation to achieve net-zero emissions at the local and state level, resulting in Baltimore City passing legislation requiring city government operations to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045. Similarly, Maryland has committed to the most ambitious greenhouse gas reductions of any state in the nation. At the federal level, the National Aquarium advocated for investments in climate action and environmental justice, leading to Congress passing the most significant climate legislation in history, with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 providing a nearly $370 billion investment in efforts to combat climate change.

As American marine biologist, oceanographer, and explorer Sylvia Earle has said, “Our past, our present, and whatever remains of our future absolutely depend on what we do now.” True to their missions, aquariums are rising to the challenge and taking charge – turning scientific expertise into emotional connections with the natural world, and inspiring people into action. As public awareness of the vitality of our oceans continues to grow, one thing is clear – our aquariums and their conservation efforts are making a positive impact on the future of our Blue Planet.

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