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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Future of Aquaria

Air Date: Week of

Responding to increased pressure on the world's oceans, a number of aquariums are moving beyond their traditional role of educating while entertaining the public. Some now try to inspire their visitors to become active advocates for environmental protection. There's even talk of a world-wide network of aquariums that would help shape public opinion on overfishing, climate change and other issues. Change is rippling through the world of aquariums, but as Living On Earth's John Rudolph reports, not everyone is convinced that this newfound activisim is the best way to go.


KNOY: Responding to increased pressure on the world's oceans, a number of aquariums are moving beyond their traditional role of educating while entertaining the public. Some now try to inspire their visitors to become active advocates for environmental protection. There's even talk of a worldwide network of aquariums that would help shape public opinion on overfishing and climate change, and other issues. Change is rippling through the world of aquariums, but as Living on Earth's John Rudolph reports, not everyone is convinced that this newfound activism is the best way to go.

(Gulls calling)

RUDOLPH: The New England Aquarium occupies a large, angular, concrete structure overlooking Boston Harbor. For decades visitors have come here to see displays of tropical fish along with sharks, penguins, and sea lions. But there are almost no fish in the aquarium's newest exhibit. It's an issue- oriented display about the fishing area off the New England coast called George's Bank. Once George's Bank was teeming with cod, haddock and other marine life. Today, after decades of overfishing, and despite tight government restrictions on local fishermen, George's Bank and the industry it supports are in crisis. Ari Epstein is a scientist who helped design the George's Bank display.

(Voices in the background)

EPSTEIN: Throughout the exhibit there are these statues of people. There's a fisherman. Ahead of us you'll see there's a consumer. There's a scientist, there are a variety of other fishermen and regulators, each of them personalizing what's happening on George's Bank, and how they view it and what they're hoping to do about it or what effect it's having on them. So the next thing we see as we walk down the hallway...

RUDOLPH: The George's Bank display is the first in a series of issue-oriented exhibits planned by the aquarium's president Jerry Schubel. He spoke at a recent ceremony marking the exhibit's opening.

SCHUBEL: There's a lot at stake right now, I think, in terms of our relationships to our environment. And this aquarium is going to do everything we can to help resolve some of these issues. Some of you may be saying, well, what can an aquarium do? That's a place you take your kids on a rainy Saturday or the day after Thanksgiving when you've got company, you want to get them out of the house. You say let's go to the Aquarium. Well, that's, those are reasons to come to the Aquarium. But those of us who work here believe we can do a lot.

RUDOLPH: In addition to its traditional role of helping to conserve marine habitats, Schubel wants the aquarium to inspire people to change their lifestyles. To recycle more and drive less. Or, as he puts it, to live more lightly on the Earth. He also dreams of organizing the world's aquariums to push for laws and government policies that favor the environment.

SCHUBEL: One of the things, the strategies that we're trying is to use the community of aquariums throughout the world, both in the developed and the developing world, in the aggregate more than 125 million visitors per year, and there is one in every major marine ecosystem, for example. We've got to use these aquariums to change attitudes throughout the world. Politicians tend to have a lot more courage if they believe their constituents are behind them.

(Splashing water)

RUDOLPH: Boston isn't the only place where aquarium activism has taken hold. At California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, there's an area where visitors can send postcards on environmental issues to their government representatives.

WOMAN: Sea otters spend their entire lives at sea, yet they don't have the thick layer of blubber that seals, sea lions, and whales have to keep warm.

(Visitors' voices in the background)

RUDOLPH: One of the most popular attractions here is a show where California sea otters are fed and trained to respond to human commands. In addition to learning about the otters, visitors are also told about the need to conserve the coastal habitat of this threatened species. Steven Webster is a marine biologist and one of the people who founded the aquarium in 1984. He says the aquarium's main goal is to inspire conservation of the ocean. But Webster admits it's hard to know which forms of inspiration actually work.

WEBSTER: These days we're looking more and more specifically for how to move folks to really active participation. And that's one we're all struggling with. How from a single or even several aquarium visits can you really hope to change someone's behavior and have them dedicate time and energy toward marine conservation sorts of issues.

RUDOLPH: Increasingly, this question is being asked by aquariums throughout the world. All kinds of approaches are being tried. The New England Aquarium recently produced a short film on marine conservation issues. It's being offered to airlines for inclusion in their in-flight entertainment. In a separate effort the New England Aquarium has developed a partnership with a local chain of seafood restaurants. Now, instead of decorating their tables with cards advertising beer, the restaurant uses the space to tell patrons that there is real concern over the rapidly declining fish stock on George's Bank. Despite these efforts and the increased dollars spent on them, aquariums may be destined to fail as environmental educators. That's the view of Dale Jameson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Twelve years ago, Professor Jameson wrote a controversial essay titled, "Against Zoos." In it he argued that there is a moral presumption against keeping wild animals in captivity. He went on to ask if zoos would actually do a better job of meeting their educational objectives by exhibiting empty cages with explanations as to why they are empty. Mr. Jameson says many of his arguments against zoos apply to aquariums as well.

JAMESON: People who are optimistic about the kind of environmental education that can take place with captive animals suggest that when we experience animals under artificial conditions like zoos and aquaria, this will lead us to want to see animals and to respect them under natural conditions. Well, I suggest that it's just as plausible to think that a great deal of experience with animals under artificial conditions only whets our appetite to experience animals under artificial conditions. And which of these hypotheses is true seems to me to be one that's not yet decided.

RUDOLPH: Despite his skepticism, Dale Jameson says he wishes aquariums well in their efforts to raise the public's environmental consciousness. Other critics are less kind.

(Chimes ringing, air vents)

RUDOLPH: In Vancouver, British Columbia, Annalise Sorg heads a group that's attempting to force the local aquarium to get rid of its live whales. She argues that aquariums can't teach respect for the environment because they don't treat animals humanely. And she says the public is also to blame.

SORG: Unfortunately, zoos and aquariums -- and circuses are thrown in that category have a role of entertainment. People don't go to these institutions to be educated as such. They go to be entertained.

(Splashing water)

RUDOLPH: At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, marine biologist Steven Webster acknowledges that pressure from animal rights advocates has had an impact, forcing some aquariums to downplay their role as entertainers and to put more emphasis on conservation education. But Webster says, at his aquarium at least, criticism from the outside is not the principal motivator.

WEBSTER: I think it falls to almost to what you might call missionary zeal. If you really feel that the world has some serious problems and that they're going to get more serious if we don't, one, make ourselves fully aware of them and then try and ameliorate them and avoid similar problems in the future, you have to get somewhat passionate about it. Because a lot of these changes will involve things that in the short term aren't very pleasant for people. And hoping to get the citizenry thinking about such things, you just have to keep putting these issues in front of people so that they can continue to address them in a variety of ways and eventually some people catch fire.

(Many voices gathered)

RUDOLPH: Apparently, the conservation message is getting through to some aquarium visitors. Gene Elliott brought his 6-year-old granddaughter Brianna to the Monterey Bay Aquarium because he wanted to increase her environmental awareness.

ELLIOTT: We went up to the top and seen how the world's population of fishes is disappearing. She's aware of that. And I think it's made her a little bit more conservation minded. She's gone around and touched all the ones she could touch, and she realizes they have feelings, and I think it's a good experience.

BRIANNA: Manta rays are very nice and you can pet them on the head or either on the little fins. But not on the tail, it's not a good idea to touch them on the tail.

(Ambient voices, fading to gulls calling)

RUDOLPH: As fisheries teeter on the brink of collapse and pollution continues to destroy marine ecosystems, public concern appears to be growing. But can aquariums take that sense of concern and turn it into action to improve the environment? Even the people who run aquariums can't answer that question yet. For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph in Boston.



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