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Aquariums fight for people to care about warming, over-fished oceans

Overfishing, climate change and plastics are a few of the hot topics on the table at the International Aquarium Congress in Vancouver. But one of the biggest challenges aquariums face today is how to make people care about oceans and sea life.

Vancouver is hosting the International Aquarium Congress for the first time since it began in 1960

Aquariums attract millions of visitors per year. Directors say that's why it's so important they educate the public as well as entertain. (floridatoursim)

For the hundreds of marine and freshwater experts in Vancouver this week at the International Aquarium Congress, there is no shortage of pressing issues to be discussed. 

Overfishing, climate change, plastics and chemicals are but a few of the hot topics on the agenda, but one of the biggest challenges aquariums face today is not a scientific endeavour, per se: it's how to make people care.

"The state of our world oceans is really is out of sight, out of mind because we're a land-based species," said Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and keynote speaker at the congress.

Julie Packard is executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which she helped found in the late 1970s. (Monterey Bay Aquarium)

"The ocean seems really big. It's hard to imagine we could possibly have an impact on it."

From Packard's perspective, aquariums are in a unique position to reach millions of people as institutions that combine the role of entertainment and education.

And she says now is the time to push that educational role more than ever. 

"Am I concerned? Absolutely. I would say that the main message is the oceans are changing and they're changing faster than we're really able to measure them."

"While the environmental movement has done an amazing job of building momentum of improving environmental health on land, for too long we've been forgetting what I like to call the other 71 per cent of the planet," Packard said. 

A pressing need

With titles like "Fish Conservation and Propagation" and "Aquatic Diseases," most of the congress's sessions are out of reach for the average member of the public. 

But on Tuesday, the Vancouver Aquarium is hosting Ocean Check-Up, a public event that will bring together a handful of those experts in a more accessible format. 

"We thought it would be a crime to have these global experts ... and not make them available to the general public," said John Nightingale, president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium. 

Nightingale agreed with Packard's assessment of the role of aquariums today.

Interactive exhibits like this 50,000-litre stingray touch pool at the Vancouver Aquarium aren't only entertaining — they help educate according to scientists. (Vancouver Aquarium)

They may have started in the 1850s primarily as curiosity shops, but he says most aquariums now have a large focus on education and conservation — a focus he says has intensified in the last 10 years. 

"The impact of changing climate, which includes ocean acidification, is like a tidal wave on the horizon," he said. "We can see it coming, and both the science and the public interpretation need to amp up."

One question about the role of aquariums that won't be officially discussed at the congress is the ongoing debate about breeding programs and keeping cetaceans in captivity.

Nightingale said the topic isn't on the table, since the event is mainly focused on sharing scientific updates — but it may come up in hallway conversations.

Fostering hope

Packard says part of the push has been driven by scientific discoveries that have illuminated the role of the world's oceans and freshwater systems as "a critical piece of our life support system here on Earth."

She points to the fact that just a few decades ago people didn't know that ocean life produces half of the world's the oxygen, or that ocean currents drive climate change. 

But Packard believes it's just as important for aquariums to present a hopeful picture that leaves people with hope and knowledge about what they can do to help. 

She cites Monterey Bay, in California, as a great example of success — the former whaling centre has had fisheries collapse and sea otters hunted nearly to extinction by fur traders. However, the area is now a thriving marine ecosystem.  

"The ocean is resilient," she said. "We have the fixes. We know how to do it right. We just need the political will to make those changes."

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