An Urgent and Critical Need for Ocean Conservation Action: A Conversation with Julie Packard, Execut

In the late 1970s, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (of Hewlett-Packard fame) were looking for a family project to support, apart from the proposals that came from their family foundation. They were presented with the idea of the Monterey Bay Aquarium to transform an abandoned sardine canning city from a long-dead industry and spotlight the marine life of Monterey Bay. Since it opened in 1984, the Aquarium has been at the cutting edge of aquariums in exhibitry, husbandry and conservation. It is often regarded as the best aquarium in the United States- if not the world. Its longtime leader is Julie Packard and her passion for ocean conservation and accomplishments in protecting marine life are unparalleled. Here is her story.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

When it opened in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium represented a move to the aquarium of the future and has been at the forefront of innovation in aquariums ever since. “Today’s aquarium is a very different thing than fifty years ago,” Packard reflected. “Today, aquariums view themselves as institutions with missions all about conservation and education. They’re reflecting on their role in protecting the species they have on exhibit.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

"Here at Monterey Bay Aquarium we’ve had a unique history as we’re quite a young institution. We turned 33 years old only a few days ago (October 20, 2017),” Packard continued. “We’ve created this place for a specific purpose: to inspire and engage people about the ocean through an experience that shows what the ocean is really like. We began with a mission that had education, public awareness, stewardship and research but over time, the more we watched the ocean change and the more I felt very passionately we need to include the ocean in the conversation about nature, we decided to boil down our mission statement: to inspire conservation of the ocean.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“A lot of what we do today is more like a non- government organization (NGO) than an aquarium but it all begins with the mother ship of the experience here,” Julie Packard remarked. The idea for the Monterey Bay Aquarium actually began with her family. “The David and Lucile Packard Foundation was created in the sixties and we were funding a lot of projects and grants around the environment, science and issues our family cared about,” Packard recalled. “My father challenged all of us to come up with bigger projects that were our own ideas. It was my older sister and her colleagues who had the idea to create an aquarium focused on Monterey Bay, located at the site of what was the largest sardine cannery on Cannery Row.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

At the time, Monterey Bay and the town surrounding it were not doing well and needed new life.“The cannery was falling down and there wasn’t a whole lot going on in Monterey,” Julie Packard said. “There was no place where the public could experience the bay itself, which was really a key feature that brought tourists there.” Additionally, Monterey Bay was plagued by pollution and its marine life- depleted by over-exploitation and poor management- was a shadow of its earlier abundance. However, the Packards saw an opportunity and were ambitious about what the aquarium could become.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“My father put forward the idea that the Foundation would put up the capital costs to build the aquarium but it had to operate on a self-sustaining basis afterwards,” Packard noted. “Also, unlike many of the newer aquariums, we didn’t have a formal relationship with the city and have been totally funded privately from the start.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

The lack of financial dependence on the city allowed the Packards great freedom in controlling the destiny of the aquarium. “We had a lot of control over how we were carrying out the vision,” Julie Packard explained. “We visited all the aquariums we could find in the U.S. and many in Japan and came back with a lot of ideas about things we wanted to do differently than what we saw. [At the times] aquariums were tanks with fish without a lot of room to move around. We knew we wanted the focus to be Monterey Bay ecosystems. We all studied here although none of us knew anything about caring for fish. In creating our exhibits, we presented things in a community-based approach, which most zoos and aquariums do today. We wanted to recreate and replicate the rich and diverse ocean under Monterey Bay. [Monterey Bay is] now the largest marine sanctuary in the continental U.S.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

When asked how she ended up with such an important job, Julie Packard said it was all family dynamics.

“I’m the youngest in the family and anyone involved with a family business knows there’s always dynamics in play,” she stated. “I got along well with my dad and was excited with the business challenge [of the aquarium.] I knew how to navigate all the players. The institutions we run are such a collaboration and it requires so many different talents to put together something you’ve created from scratch. I was designated most likely to succeed at this.” Packard remains the Aquarium’s Executive Director today.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

While the Packards had the vision and the money, they needed to assemble a world class team to make this ambitious project a reality.

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“We really didn’t have any expertise about exhibit design, animal husbandry, engineering, visitor flow or all the aspects that needed to be put together,” Packard remarked. “We put together a team of consultants to work with us for seven years until our opening. It was a very collaborative process. My father was very involved in the engineering process and we had a lot of design reviews and back to the drawing board meetings. I was very lucky to find an amazing husbandry director for us. He thought we were a little crazy wanting to create a kelp forest exhibit but ultimately, he decided to make it happen. We wanted very naturalistic environments and to create new kinds of exhibits no one had ever done before. We had a great design and husbandry team in this creative collaboration.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

The most ambitious exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium was the living Kelp Forest, which had never been attempted. “When we asked the public if they were interested in seeing a kelp forest exhibit, they said no but we were already about to open,” Julie Packard claimed. “I must say we didn’t do a lot of market research during the planning process.” The challenge of recreating the complex ecosystem was immense. “Kelp are among the fastest growing plants in the world and only live in very rich water,” Packard elaborated. “I had actually worked on seaweed aquaculture during my masters program. I talked to scientists to learn what they had to say about growing giant kelp. We put together what we learned about how you would find it in the natural world and recreated it. Water movement was a huge issue as kelp needed nutrient flow. My father created the plunger that creates the standing wave in the exhibit.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“We wanted an open seawater system so it could be very natural, which is why it’s a beautiful exhibit,” Packard continued. “It requires a lot of extra maintenance and oftentimes there would be no visibility due to the richness of the (plankton) blooms in the bay. [To increase visibility,] we had to design our seawater system in a unique way so it’s flowed during night and filtered during the day to have very good visibility. We had no idea if it would work at all and thought perhaps we would have to replant [the kelp] a lot. It thrived and really worked well.”

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Another innovation the Monterey Bay Aquarium made was perfecting protocols for jellyfish husbandry. “We were on a mission to bring new animals to the public on the principle of showing the amazing diversity of ocean life,” Julie Packard remarked. “We collaborated with students at Sanford University’s marine laboratory and there was a young aquarist who started working in the behind the scenes area on jellies.” She pointed to this as an example of how the aquarium tries to give its animal care staff extra time to explore their interests through side projects. “She researched and researched,” Packard recalled. “She discovered the kreisel (German for roundabout) tank, [which is] the classic design for jelly tanks you find. We decided, ‘Hey, let’s do a temporary exhibit.’”

The jellyfish proved to be a fast hit. “People loved it,” Packard stated. “We just continued with it and did our big jelly gallery when we opened the Open Sea Wing in 1996. We also did three special exhibitions on jellies and have continued to go for it.” Soon, aquariums across the nation were incorporating jellyfish exhibits. “Our mission was to bring new and unusual animals to the public and, in a way, imitation is the highest form of flattery,” Packard remarked. “For me, exhibiting jellies is such a great story as they’re probably the most abundant predators on the planet. They drive so much of our natural systems that people never even think about.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has broken unprecedented grounds in terms of the exhibitry and conservation of great white sharks, a species that was long deemed as unsuitable for human care. “The work our team has done with white sharks is such a great story,” Julie Packard elaborated. “For starters, in the spirit of bringing new animals to the public, the husbandry team for many years was asking me if they could do a research proposal on great white shark for exhibit. I kept saying we have to really know it’s going to work and have publishable conservation science out of it. They started working with fishermen in Southern California [on great white sharks] and some great papers came out of examining the size and distribution of populations of white sharks on the California coast.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

Through this process, the team was able to successfully bring a young great white shark into an ocean pen off shore and were able to feed it prey from a pole [rather than living prey.] That particular great white shark ended up being on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for six and a half months before being released back into the wild. “We had a big attendance spike,” Packard remembered. “People were really crazy about seeing that juvenile white shark. It was a small white shark, which debunked the myth of them being big and scary. We had a huge opportunity to communicate what white sharks are really about- they have way more to fear about us than we about them. We did very well financially that year so I recommended we put a chunk of that money back into the white shark research we were supporting.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

Since that time, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has hosted great white sharks on temporary stays give other times (though it has no plans to do so again.) However, the results from the aquarium’s field science, involving tagging and tracking adult and juvenile white sharks, were not good. “We had a paper published which showed what the shark population looked like,” Packard stated. “[It found] our population of white sharks on the coast is quite small. Based on that, Oceania petitioned for an Endangered Species Act listing for the white shark.” Although the petition was rejected, actions for white sharks did not end there.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“We took a number of other shark conservation initiatives,” Packard noted. “We got California to ban shark fin products, which was appealed by shark fin business people but the law was successfully ypheld. [Our work with great white sharks is] such a great full circle story of exhibit and conservation research resulting in conservation action. I love that story.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

The aquarium’s field studies, with partners in the U.S. and Mexico, continue to this day.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“When we link the science and conservation advocacy, that’s what we all need to aim for,” Julie Packard claimed. She believes aquariums are the perfect place to link science and conservation advocacy together as well as give visitors an emotional connection to ocean life.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“The impact an aquarium [visit] has on people is one we all wish we understood,” Packard elaborated. “That’s the big question. Like most other aquariums, we would say first and foremost our goal is for people to fall in love with the ocean. [We want them to] see something and experience something that blows them away and really leaves [them] with a sense of value for whatever aspect of their visit - an animal, a presentation, a whale breaching out in the Bay - is memorable and sparks a sense of valuing nature. We hope people will become engaged and want to learn about what sparked and inspired them.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

The strategy the Monterey Bay Aquarium uses to achieve this goal has evolved over time. “When we opened, we were much more focused on [being] a learning institution that encouraged visitors to learn facts about marine life,” Packard explained. “That no longer is the model. [Now] it’s really emotional connection first which sparks an interest in engaging in information. Oftentimes the best learning and engagement happens person to person with our interpreters on the floor. We’ve really staffed up over the year and want each and every visitor to have a series of interpersonal interactions during their experience. If not, they could just watch a fish video from their bedroom.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

Not only does the aquarium staff and volunteer interpreters have interpreters in front of animal exhibits but there are also naturalists to speak about life on the Bay too. “The Bay is always changing and you never know what you’ll see out there,” Julie Packard remarked. Inside the aquarium, significant conservation messaging has been added. “We’ve added a lot more conservation messaging in the exhibits and experimented with how to get people to take action on their visit before they leave,” Packard said. “[They can] email the government about protection of state waters. We built a policy advocacy team and want to link the public up to those. If we demand change, it will happen.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

The biggest program the Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed in linking the public to conservation is Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood initiative that has evolved from a consumer-facing program into one that’s market based and having a global impact.

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“The public wants to know what they can do and choosing sustainable seafood is a great way they can take action and make a difference,” Julie Packard stated. “Seafood Watch started from the modest beginning of a special exhibition, Fishing for Solutions. It was our first special exhibit focused just on a conservation message - global fisheries are in crisis but there are solutions. Before opening we realized we needed to get our own restaurant to have serve sustainable seafood. We found more sustainable options.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“Because the public was very interested in knowing what they should be doing, we ramped it up into a pocket guide that is still in use,” Packard continued. “We [then] started upping the ante and built a program called Seafood Watch. Quickly it started generating media buzz and we enlisted celebrity chefs, which got the attention [of businesses.] It moved to us working with businesses, starting with our food service partners at the aquarium, to make sustainable seafood commitments. Today there is a whole network of NGOs working on these business partnerships driven by Seafood Watch data. We are maintaining and constantly updating reports on fisheries and aquaculture worldwide, finding sustainable options and creating linkups between the buyers and sustainable solutions. It’s been really rewarding and super cool to watch.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“I’m really excited about [another] conservation success involving seafood we’ve just been celebrating,” Julie Packard pointed out. “It’s a story linking an exhibit idea to a conservation research story, [in this case] related to Pacific bluefin tuna. We were the second aquarium to exhibit bluefin tuna. We designed the Open Sea exhibit and learned how to exhibit tuna. Alongside that, we funded a major initiative to deploy satellite data on Pacific blue fin tuna to understand their wild populations. The conclusion came they’re at 3% of their historical population. That was a huge shock as the Pacific is a huge ocean. We worked very hard to have our team be involved with international bodies that make the decisions on tuna quotas and worked hard to convince nations that now is the time to take action. This year Japan came on board, which is a big deal. Action is now being taken in the right direction and the decision was to create a science-based recovery plan. If proper laws are put in place, [the tuna] can rebound.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

Julie Packard is the board chair of the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBARI.) “MBARI was an outcome of my father’s vision [as] he thinks big,” she explained. “After we worked on the aquarium together, he wanted to launch a research program. We brought together a panel of ocean scientists to focus on the needs and opportunities in Monterey Bay. We have an amazing canyon, the Monterey Bay Canyon, which is two miles deep off our shore. The scientists all said the deep sea is the last frontier and this was a huge opportunity to study it right here.” In order to examine the bay, technology had to be created. “MBARI was launched as a sister institution to the aquarium and its mission is to use technology to understand the ocean. They’ve made some remarkable discoveries.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

The accomplishments of MBARI have been many. “Historically, the only access to the deep sea was touring nets [that caught] all of the invertebrate animals,” Packard pointed out. “[They’ve] now spent several decades studying those things in real life - seeing their abundance and behavior [and] studying their role in the carbon cycle, [figuring out] how carbon is entering the ocean and where it goes. They’re [also] studying ocean acidification impact on animals. The opportunity to study the same region for a very long time has been quite unusual and helped give a picture of these very long term changes and cycles.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

Julie Packard’s involvement in ocean conservation developed organically. “It was not because of an epiphany but because we were working on a huge piece of nature which was the ocean. [Before the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened] none of the founders were doing anything on ocean conservation and it was thought the ocean was so vast nothing could affect it, which of course wasn’t the case. That’s how I became interested.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

Unlike terrestrial conservation, ocean conservation is not as limited by national barriers. “The thing about doing conservation in the ocean is no one owns the ocean so the main tool is policy,” Packard explained. “We try to have rules about the parts we share in international waters and have market strategies which we focus on. [We’re trying to move] ocean enterprise to a more sustainable state. You have to lock that into policy and get governments to make rules and enforce them. I served on a [national] commission to change ocean policy, [which] was an amazing experience. We traveled around the country to hear all the different issues on oceans and formed a blueprint on ocean policy.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“One really important effort [we focused on] was to end illegal unreported fishing and wasted catch,” Packard continued. “Those are policy issues. You have to have global treaties and have them enforced. People sometimes ask me ‘What’s up with the fish thing and why are you working on seafood?’ The way I see it fishing is the most basic relationship [we have] with the ocean. That can be fine if we’re doing it in the right way on the right scale. There are now way too many of us so figuring out fishing is an environmental health issue for people who depend on seafood. We have the technology to track boats that are illegally fishing. We’ve got a lot of momentum around that, which is very exciting to see. I’m very proud of the NGO community and the U.S. government has put its weight behind it.”

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Aquariums are only at the beginning of realizing their full potential for conservation. “There’s a lot of opportunities for aquariums to up their game on the conservation side,” Julie Packard reflected. “I always wanted to model my vision of redefining aquariums as a force for conservation like at Monterey Bay Aquarium. We’ve done a lot of experimentation and have made a lot of progress and have proof of concepts to share. Over the years I’ve been talking with some of my aquarium colleagues about launching a partnership to do conservation action together. National, Shedd and Monterey Bay aquariums founded an Aquarium Conservation Partnership to do conservation action together, with 19 total partners so far. Our first priority is reducing single-use plastic. I’m very hopeful that, as we all share our experiences, more aquariums will work toward that mission of making our conservation mission real action.”

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“Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a huge success and I’m very privileged to work on taking this way beyond what the original idea was,” Julie Packard concluded. “There’s still a lot more to do especially in terms of engaging people in the urgent and critical needs around conservation action in the future. We’ll continue to create experiences that engage people here and beyond our walls.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

“Our aquarium and others have demonstrated we’re trusted sources of information. That’s a responsibility and an opportunity. We’re going to continue to build on what we can do to build a constituency for nature and guide people to the right solutions. That’s what I see in the future- the continued evolution of aquariums as centers for people to act around conservation and continue to be inspired.”

@ Monterey Bay Aquarium

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