Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tom O’Neal

On June 4, 2014, we had the great pleasure of interviewing Julie Packard, Executive Director and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She has been the aquarium’s director since 1984 and also serves on the boards of the California Nature Conservancy, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. She has also been a member of the Pew Oceans Commission and was the 1998 recipient of the Audubon Medal for Conservation. We asked Julie about her thoughts on the state of the oceans and how cities can get involved in celebrating and conserving oceans.

Oceans face a host of serious pressures and conservation challenges today. What most worries you today? Are you optimistic about the long-term health of ocean environments?

I think that anyone who has been working on environmental issues for as long as I have has to be an optimist at heart or you wouldn’t still be in the game. The fact of the matter is that the oceans are changing. There are going to be a lot of changes ahead and a lot of changes for humans and wildlife as well. My outlook is that we need to do as much as we can. Will the world be different? Yes. Nature will prevail in some form. What the state of life for humans will be is really a big question that people don’t seem to think about. Nature will likely change in a way that can’t support our population in the way that we’ve been supported.

The biggest of all environmental issues is global climate change. Carbon pollution has a huge effect on the oceans, especially ocean acidification. It is such a game changing impact that we are just beginning to understand. Obviously, ocean warming is also a growing impact that is changing our ocean ecosystems.

In terms of bright spots, we’ve learned so much in past 50 years about how the ocean works. The good news is that we have some tools and understanding to generate solutions and to take the right actions. We certainly are doing a much better job in developed nations in terms of managing fisheries. We have environmental laws that are mitigating negative impacts. The mistakes that we have made in the developed world can be learned from and prevented in some of the developing nations as they rise in their socioeconomic status. Solutions exist and hopefully the pace will be accelerated in some places.

Could you tell us the story of the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

Aquariums originally evolved as menageries and did not focus on education or conservation. Those emphases have evolved. The Monterey Bay is an extraordinarily rich part of the ocean and is globally significant. The idea of the Monterey Bay Aquarium was created by scientists, ecologists, and my family members. We had a different idea of what stories to tell and what people needed to know about the oceans, but we also thought it would be really wonderful to interpret a single region in a community-based way with an ecological theme. Before that, most aquariums were collections of exotic animals from around the world and there wasn’t cohesion or a mission to the message.

We had all grown up being inspired by Monterey Bay and ocean life here. In college, I studied marine algae and my sister is an invertebrate zoologist.  We were all about showing people what the oceans were really like and constructing an aquarium that did more than just display fish, dolphins, and other typical animals that you would see at aquariums at that time. We also had this fabulous site that contained an old cannery. The site itself is an amazing story of restoration and rebirth here on the bay. After a huge boom and bust of a sardine fishery, it was abandoned. It is a real life story of what happens when resources are over extracted and not well managed.

Today Monterey Bay is thriving with wildlife. Species that were near extinction have recovered. Is the ocean healthy and out of the woods? No, there are still a lot of issues to be concerned about. Originally, the Monterey Bay aquarium was designed as a public education and research institution. Over time, it became clear that this amazing piece of ocean was not pristine and that there were important conservation stories to tell. In the 1990s, our mission changed to reflect our intention to inspire the conservation of the oceans. The key word is conservation and that is the goal in all the educational programs and exhibits that we do. We’ve really been focused over the years on demonstrating how an aquarium can be a force for conservation. We hope to inspire and motivate people to take action on the ocean’s behalf. We have had a lot of fun bringing new animals to the public and hosting engaging exhibit experiences that are a mix of awesome, inspirational, and visceral learning experiences. We continue to enjoy studying the interactions at the aquarium.

You are the founding director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and have been leading the Aquarium for 30 years. Could you speak about the key initiatives undertaken and the key roles played by the Aquarium in educating about, and conserving, ocean environments?

There hasn’t been one piece of nature that hasn’t been touched by humans. Humans have changed even the deepest part of the ocean. Where we began was by telling the natural history of the bay and we reinterpreted the experience by putting people in the picture, talking about the human relationship and explaining what what people can do to protect our oceans. Our biggest program has been Seafood Watch (check out the new app for Android and iPhone), which is our seafood consumer awareness program. It grew out of an exhibit called Fishing for Solutions. We realized that we needed to get our restaurant menu in order. Then our work grew into a global program with an incredible array of partners, including hundreds of outreach programs, celebrity chefs, restaurants, and businesses. We have seen remarkable progress in terms of how seafood is farmed and fished.

During your visit to the aquarium, we hope that you will fall in love with the animals, their stories and you’ll learn what you can do in your personal lifestyle and in larger policy measures to help those animals and the oceans. The next big priority for our institution has been creating the next generation of ocean stewards. We’ve really expanded our education programs to teacher professional development to extend that reach. If you inspire a teacher and turn them into a fantastic environmental and scientific educator, then that person is going to affect thousands during his or her career. We are in the process of growing our education programs through our new fundraising campaign and strategy.

The last part of our work is conservation and science. Most aquariums have some sort of science and research program. After we opened we began talking about what that would be. My father became really excited by the technology opportunities, so he started a new research institute dedicated to developing technology to understand the deep sea called the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. At the aquarium, we focus on conservation science on behalf of the animals in our exhibits, like the Southern Sea Otter. We have a program on the recovering Southern Sea Otter. We have done a lot of research on tuna populations in the Atlantic and Pacific. All research is conducted to help inform better management. We launched a policy and advocacy program, which is unusual for an aquarium, but was a natural step for us. We have a team that works on a suite of conservation policies and advocacy issues dedicated to animals that we work with. One example is the ban on sale and possession of shark fins in California. We work on behalf of wildlife and fisheries.

How and in what ways is the concept of biophilia relevant to oceans? Do we need that connection with ocean life as we might with more terrestrial life?

It is an interesting question. When you think back to earlier times, people always relied on the oceans for transport and food. It has really been a utilitarian relationship. In today’s society, we can see that there is a deep connection people make with certain animals. This connection to ocean wildlife can be a great hook, but it isn’t a hook for everyone. We have a lot of colleague aquariums in Japan that we have worked with to think about the conservation impact of their institutions. We have learned a lot about Japanese ocean ethics. Many residents of Japan really don’t view ocean animals as wildlife. For some cultures, it is not going to be about wildlife. For the Japanese, it is the mentality that “we’re an island nation and love seafood. We can’t imagine a world where our grandchildren do not have seafood.” We need to be mindful of the diverse ways different cultures value nature.

Viewing animals in the ocean as wildlife is still relatively new for us even in the United States. In the past 30 years, many people here have started to view these animals as awesome wildlife that should be protected.

What do you feel is the role of cities in the conservation of oceans?

One of the most exciting things that cities have been doing in terms of conservation of the oceans is providing leadership on climate change. We can’t seem to get any comprehensive, federal action on climate policy, so mayors in coastal cities are getting fired up and taking action on climate adaptation planning in their local communities.

In addition, there are huge issues with runoff and pollution. The coastal regions of our oceans are where the productivity is. There is vast runoff of nitrogen and other nutrients that are polluting our coastal waters and this needs to change. Cities can take leadership on controlling runoff. Some states have very progressive plans. California has an ocean plan that is very rigorous, for example.

The majority of people on Earth now live in cities, where too often the waterfront has been transformed to a built environment. Cities have a huge opportunity to reconnect people with nature by making their waterfronts places where people can observe wildlife and experience water activities. In turn, this will help build a constituency for conservation even among those who live in the urban landscape.

Interview by Tim Beatley and Carla Jones, Biophilic Cities Project Researcher 

Carla is a Lecturer and Program Director at the University of Virginia.