Caribbean Journey: A Conversation with Tom Schmid, President and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium

Tom Schmid has been President and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium since 1999. Over the course of that time, the aquarium has grown in size, attendance, financial stability and optimal animal welfare. Schmid also served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for several years, including a year as its Chair. This year, the Texas State Aquarium rehabilitated and released over 1,000 sea turtles in the largest cold stunning event in history. Here is his story.

@ Tom Schmid

Tom Schmid’s time in the aquarium world began when he was in graduate school. “I was conducting research on sharks and rays when I met some of the team at SeaWorld Orlando,” he recalled. “When I finished grad school they reached out and offered me a job managing their shark collection.” The experience turned out to be a very valuable one. “I really enjoyed it, learned a lot and did some interesting research on the bioenergetics of captive shark populations at Sea World,” Schmid remarked. “We looked at how much energy they consumed and their swimming patterns. We observed how efficient sharks are and how little they eat. It was a great way to start my career.”

@ Seaworld

Additionally, the team at SeaWorld conducted state-of-the-art husbandry training with the sharks. “We conditioned the sharks to be fed from poles and tongs,” Schmid noted. “We were able to condition them to come up to the surface so we could net them for physical examinations.”

@ Seaworld

Wanting to move into a management position, Schmid moved to Nauticus, a new marine-themed science center in Norfolk. “It was still being built so I got to be on the ground for construction,” he remarked. ‘I started as curator. Then, I became director of education and eventually director of operations. The aquarium part [of the museum] was small and it was primarily native Chesapeake species.” Schmid was responsible for putting in place animal care programs for all the museum’s residents. “We established all the procedures and policies for animal care,” Schmid stated. “We got this aquarium ready in time for opening.”

@ Nauticus

In 1996, Schmid was recruited to become Director of Animal Husbandry and Interpretation at the Texas State Aquarium. “I was anxious to get back into a traditional aquarium setting and realized there was a lot of potential [that the Texas State Aquarium] had to offer and that there were things I could do to make an impact,” Schmid reflected. In 1998, Schmid was promoted to COO and in 1999 to CEO of the Texas State Aquarium.

@ Texas State Aquarium

Texas State Aquarium was less than ten years old when Schmid became CEO and was experiencing declining attendance. It needed new life and more experiences for guests. “The aquarium was fairly small and a little rough around the edges,” Schmid elaborated. “The first thing we did was develop a changing exhibit program to bring new experiences in. One of my first projects was to design, construct and open a jellyfish special exhibit. That was the first year we experienced an increase in attendance since opening in 1990. We then moved forward with master planning work.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

Next, the Texas State Aquarium took on the major endeavor of adding a habitat for bottlenose dolphins. “There was historically a concept to add bottlenose dolphins so we started moving forward with that,” Schmid recalled. “It was exciting to bring in dolphins.” A $15 million project, the addition of dolphins required a lot of resources and effort. “Getting all the money raised and working with other aquariums to acquire dolphins was a lot of work for a new CEO but I certainly learned a lot,” Schmid remarked.

@ Texas State Aquarium

“We created an outdoor, natural seawater habitat for the dolphins with a large underwater viewing area where folks can watch the dolphins swim through the habitat,” Schmid continued. “We’ve got a gifted and dedicated team that cares for those animals and they’re really committed to creating a great quality of life for the dolphins. We’ve always been very focused on nutrition, behavior and veterinary care but we’re now launching a welfare initiative. One aspect includes measuring the movement of the dolphins and how they use their space, using an electronic device that is suctioned cupped to the animals. It’s like a fit bit for dolphins if you will.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

Schmid led the Texas State Aquarium to become financially strong. “We were able to get the board of trustees more focused on strategic planning,” Schmid stated. “We do a strategic plan every five years and get the board to understand the importance of reinvesting in the facility. We established an endowment for the first time and began operating solidly in the black. With the endowment and our cash reserves, we no longer have to rely on a line of credit. Strategic planning is critical as so much of the work we do spans a number of years. If you don’t know what you’re doing long-term, you can’t accomplish big goals.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

Over Schmid’s tenure, conservation has become a higher priority for the Texas State Aquarium. “We’ve always been involved in wildlife rehabilitation, however six years ago we launched a wildlife conservation research fund, where a percentage of our annual operating surplus goes to grants available for researchers and scientists,” he remarked. “We’ve expanded that program and have been putting resources to things like the rescue and recovery of the vaquita (an elusive cetacean off the coast of Mexico that is nearly extinct.) We helped fund the original conservation action plan for the vaquita and encouraged the AZA to make the vaquita a priority species for the SAFE (Savings Animals From Extinction) program. We helped bring awareness to the challenges that species faced and supported conservation efforts in the Sea of Cortez.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

Education has also grown leaps and bounds at the institution. “We were looking at our education programming and trying to make it more impactful,” Schmid elaborated. “We launched a center for excellence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. We’re getting middle and high school students very interested in science and math as well as helping them pursue those careers.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

In 2011, Tom Schmid served as Chair of the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums after spending time on the board. “When you’re chair, you get to know the senior staff and board members [of AZA] well and learn a lot about the organization,” he articulated. “I was very fortunate to be able to serve and being chair was a huge honor for me. It was a very crucial part of our history as we were just starting the SAFE program and having a strong conservation focus. It was certainly an enriching experience.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

Serving on the board gave Schmid an even stronger appreciation of AZA. “Accreditation makes sure we reach the highest standards for animal care,” he explained. “That process is vital. The association’s work on our behalf in helping us liaison with government agencies is essential. Conferences, schools and continuing education opportunities [provided by AZA to members] are great resources for our staff. The opportunity to work with our colleagues through committees is very valuable.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

@ Texas State Aquarium

In 2017, Texas State Aquarium opened Caribbean Journey, a massive expansion of the institution. “Our most recent strategic plan had us complete Caribbean Journey, which, at 72,000 square feet and over $60 million, was the largest expansion we’ve ever done,” Schmid elaborated. Caribbean Journey focuses on the wildlife of the Yucatan region of Mexico and interprets the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, located about 100 miles south of Cancun. “The Yucatan is a biodiversity hotspot and this particular region is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site,” Schmid mentioned.

@ Texas State Aquarium

@ Texas State Aquarium

A host of new species were added with the addition of Caribbean Journey. “We have a dozen species of birds including flamingos, scarlet ibis and parrots,” Schmid noted. “We also care for two-toed sloths, agoutis, vampire bats, lizards, snakes and a large collection of marine fish. [The exhibit is] very impressive and we’ve got a wonderful collection of tropical plants in the jungle habitat.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

@ Texas State Aquarium

Storytelling and guest experience was vital to Caribbean Reef as well. “We tried to recreate what a journey would look like where you trek from the upland forest down to the coastal area and into the Caribbean Sea,” Schmid remarked. “We have the largest aquarium open on the top to the public to give a behind the scenes look at how we care for animals. In the large shark habitat, we have a unique demi-tunnel that runs along the back perimeter. With the longest acrylic window in the country out front, and the demi tunnel along the back, you have a 360-degree view of the habitat.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

@ Texas State Aquarium

Caribbean Journey led to a huge boost in attendance and terrific feedback from guests. The Texas State Aquarium also recently finished a renovation and expansion of its offsite wildlife rehabilitation facility. “That was timely as we’re currently in the midst of the largest sea turtle cold stunning in Texas history,” Schmid elaborated. “We’ve taken in nearly 1,100 cold stunned sea turtles and released over 1000 back in to the Gulf. Our next big project will be a new center for wildlife conservation featuring a rehab facility and spaces for education programming and conservation and research work. We’ll have some of those areas open to students and the public.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

@ Texas State Aquarium

Animal wellness has been a top priority for the Aquarium. “We do a lot of enrichment, particularly with our dolphins and river otters,” Schmid stated. “We provide them with lots of activities and opportunities to interact with our team. This year we’re launching an animal welfare assessment program that is going to be a big focus moving forward.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

@ Texas State Aquarium

“We are making the shift from being an informal marine science center to being recognized as a wildlife conservation institution that operates an aquarium, wildlife rehab center and center for excellence in STEM education,” Schmid reflected. “Zoos and aquariums are at that pivot and need to be cognizant of that. We’re unique as we’re the only aquarium that focuses exclusively on the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. For a city the size of Corpus Christi to have the 9th largest AZA accredited not for profit aquarium in the country is a testament to our support.”

@ Texas State Aquarium

#TexasStateAquarium #SeaWorld

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti