Reflecting upon the Aquarium of the Pacific’s 20th anniversary in a Q&A with the Long Beach Business Journal, President and CEO Dr. Jerry Schubel emphasized the important role the institution has taken in educating the public about the effects of human interactions with the environment and how to create a more sustainable future for coastal communities.
Schubel was selected as president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in 2002 after the founding president, Warren Iliff, retired. Schubel has an academic background, having served for 20 years as the dean of Stony Brook Sciences Research Center and as an adjunct professor, research scientist and associate director of the John Hopkins University Chesapeake Bay Institute. Prior to leading the Aquarium of the Pacific, he served as president and CEO emeritus of the New England Aquarium. Schubel has published more than 225 scientific papers and is a member of the California Ocean Science Trust Board of Trustees.
Since taking over leadership of the Aquarium, Schubel has led the institution in developing partnerships with many national agencies, both private and public, as well as with organizations around the globe. As he points out, the Aquarium – which opened on June 20, 1998 – is not just an attraction; it has become a top Long Beach cultural institution and a place of learning.
LBBJ: Looking back on the past 20 years, how do you feel the Aquarium has evolved as a community resource?
Schubel: Well, I think it was always a community resource. Warren Iliff, who was the first president, made sure that it was embedded in the community. But as you know, we went through a difficult time. The bonds had to be refinanced. The city took over the debt. And we have evolved in every way. I have been here now 16 years. We have increased the attendance by 700,000, and we have increased the budget. We have a wonderful array of programs. It’s much more diverse than it ever was. And they are programs for people of all ages, not just kids. We started with kids, but now we have really robust programs for adults. We have lectures, about one a week. We have the Aquatic Academy, where we give two short courses each year: one in the spring and one in the fall. We have the Aquatic Forum, which brings together scientists, policymakers and stakeholders to examine different issues that are either local, regional, statewide and even national, to come up with some recommended approaches to dealing with these issues. I think it’s quite unlike other aquariums in the depth and diversity of the programs it offers. That was one of the challenges when I was hired. I spent most of my life in academia. The search committee back then said, ‘We want it to be more than a fish tank.’ And I think that’s why they decided to hire somebody who came out of academia rather than out of the aquarium/zoo business.
LBBJ: The Aquarium has always made it a point to promote sustainability for our oceans. In what ways does this continue to be a focus for the Aquarium?
Schubel: It’s a primary focus. And I think what we do differently is that, if you look ahead with climate change, population growth, et cetera, we are going to have a very different relationship with the ocean well before the end of this century than we have now. This whole idea of ‘keep your hands off mother nature’ doesn’t work. We’ve so transformed this earth that what we have to do now is to manage our activities to reduce our impact on nature. For some conservationists, the goal is to preserve the environment. I think that’s crazy. Preservation should be for jams, jellies, old buildings, old cars and pictures. Conservation means that you keep the rate of change as close to what it would have been in the absence of humans as possible, so nature can keep up with the pace. Right now, it’s too fast, so we are losing species on land 100 to 1,000 times more rapidly than at any time in the 300,000 years of human history. We have to take a pause, slow things down.
We are focusing on things like aquaculture. If you’re going to feed a growing population and give them a safe, secure, sustainable source of healthful protein, we need to have more seafood. It won’t come from wild capture fisheries. But it can come from farming the sea in a responsible way. California ought to be a leader. We have one of the most thoroughly studied coastal environments, both in state and federal waters. We should lead the nation. We have got the No. 1 agricultural economy in the states, but it comes at a cost. Agriculture in California takes 70% of all of our developed water, and 25% of the total land area. And if you look at agriculture in the U.S., we devote almost half of this country’s land mass to agriculture. It takes a toll on the environment. And we have been able to show that in less than one-tenth of 1% of our exclusive economic zone – [which stretches] from the coastline out 200 nautical miles – we could produce an amount of seafood equivalent to the total annual global wild catch of seafood. The problem is getting the permits and getting all the testing protocols so we can make this happen.
We have had so much success in doing things a certain way up to this point. We wouldn’t enjoy the lifestyle we do without fossil fuels. But things are different now. We are in this period that is called the Anthropocene – the first geologic epoch in which human influence rivals that of natural processes. We are a global force, and we have to use that influence to shape a different future.
LBBJ: The Aquarium has become a center of learning, with its ongoing forums and guest speakers. Soon, the Pacific Visions addition will expand upon these efforts. How does this direction set the Aquarium apart? Why do you believe this is the best future for the Aquarium?
Schubel: When we decided to go in the direction of Pacific Visions, there were two competing proposals on the table. One was a traditional expansion as an aquarium – bigger tanks for bigger animals. And the other was to build a platform where animals are important, but they play a supporting role. It was to build a platform to tell the really big stories of the relationship of humans with the earth and the ocean and what it would take to make it sustainable. And that’s what makes this aquarium distinctive.
LBBJ: How many people visit the Aquarium each year, and how many do you expect to visit once Pacific Visions opens?
Schubel: The last two years, we have had a little over 1.7 million visitors a year. We expect when Pacific Visions opens, we will go above 2 million a year.
LBBJ: What are your hopes for Pacific Visions and what it will mean for the future of the Aquarium and the communities that visit it?
Schubel: I hope it will redefine what aquariums, science centers, natural history museums need to do in engaging and informing the public about the issues we face as a society. Pacific Visions is designed to let people explore alternative pathways to the future and how our actions will determine the future we’re going to live in. The three basic things are the kinds and amounts of energy we use, the ways we grow and harvest our food both on land and in the ocean, and how we use our water. And they’re all tightly intertwined. Pacific Visions isn’t a didactic learning experience. Nobody is going to lecture. People will discover for themselves. And maybe they will eat one less hamburger and a little more seafood, and so on.
This 2013 image shows Edie, an anatomically correct 88-foot fiberglass model of a female blue whale that still hangs in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Great Hall. The model of a blue whale calf hanging behind her is called Edison. Designed and built by the Larson Company in Tucson, Arizona, the models were transported in seven pieces. John Heyning, director of research and collections and curator of mammals at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, served as a consultant. (Business Journal Photograph)
LBBJ: Under your leadership, the Aquarium has also become a place where culture and the arts are celebrated and integrated with the Aquarium’s vision. Why has this been a priority for you?
Schubel: It has been a priority for all of us on the staff and on the board. My background is as a scientist. But often, science is not the best way to engage the general public emotionally in these issues. So we have tried to combine art in all of its modalities – the performing arts, the visual arts, the musical arts – to give people an emotional gut connection to some of these issues, and then use the science to show the way forward. It’s going to require very different strategies going forward than in the past. We have got 7.6 billion people on the planet. We are on our way to 10 billion before the end of the century. We use globally 70% of all the water, and more than half of the ice-free land surface to grow our food. There’s not enough land, there’s not enough water to feed another 2.5 billion people. So, we have to reexamine our relationship to the ocean. California ought to be the leader.
LBBJ: What have been some of the challenges you have faced leading the Aquarium, and how did you approach them?
Schubel: I think because we were founded as a traditional aquarium, when the board decided at a retreat that we were going to go off on this new path, people here for very legitimate, understandable reasons who have spent their lives caring for animals wondered, ‘Why are we doing this? Why don’t we build a wing with bigger tanks and more animals?’ Getting buy-in was one of the big challenges. There are probably still a few people who would like to kill me [laughs].
We have a wonderful staff, and it’s a unified staff of employees and volunteers. And I think most all of them now are excited about the new direction that we’re taking. They realize, I think, the animals that we have in our captivity, they’re not the ones that really matter. It’s the animals out there [in the ocean] that matter. And if we can use our animals and these stories to help protect the animals in the ocean, then we have done something really good.
LBBJ: What do you look back on as some of the major turning points or milestones for the Aquarium?
Schubel: I think the decision to do Pacific Visions was a major one. The other thing that has evolved over time and has been very important is, lots of institutions think they have all the expertise they need in house. We have always brought the best minds to the table. Whenever we do a new exhibit, a new program, a new film, we bring some of the best minds to the table and we ask them, ‘What are the things that the public needs to know?’ Our expertise largely in the Aquarium is in packaging stories and delivering them to a general audience. That has evolved over time and now I think we’re at the point that nobody would ever think of doing a new exhibit without bringing in the experts.
LBBJ: What do you hope the lasting impact and legacy of this Aquarium will be on Long Beach and the communities it serves?
Schubel: It already is the most visited cultural organization in Long Beach. We outdraw all the others combined by a factor of three. I think the new building is an iconic building. It will be an architectural icon that will bring people to Long Beach. We always wanted to be part of the city. Long Beach is a big enough city to have national impact, but it’s small enough to be manageable. Some cities aren’t manageable. They’re too big. This one should be manageable. And we sit in a very unusual – I think even unique – place along the coastline. This is the perfect example of an urban ocean – lots of people living along the ocean making diverse and multiple and intense uses of the ocean and living in pretty good harmony with marine life. We want to reinforce that. Because pretty soon, the whole world is going to be an urban ocean. Fifty percent of the population of the earth lives along the coast. In California, it’s 70%. And the relationship to the coast will change with sea level rise and we would like to be at the forefront of that.
California is doing its fourth climate assessment right now. This time, different parts of the report will deal with different geographic areas. So Ventura County, Los Angeles County, Orange County is one [section]. And I was asked to write the section on ocean and coasts. If you look ahead to the end of this century, sea level will be anywhere from three to five feet higher than it is today. Many of our wetlands will be, if not scrunched, they will be drowned entirely. Beaches will be narrower. It’s going to take a big toll on tourism, because so much of our economy comes from tourism associated with beaches. So, we’re trying to raise people’s awareness and help them look at alternative ways to adapt and to reduce what could be a very large impact.
LBBJ: Is there anything you would like to add or emphasize?
Schubel: It has been a great ride. I have just thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t believe it has been 16 years for me [as president and CEO]. I have totally, thoroughly enjoyed it. We have a wonderful staff, as I said. We have always had a good board. We have always had a good relationship with the city. And I wouldn’t trade it.