Less than a week before he was to take over as president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, Peter Kareiva was packing up stuff from his office at UCLA, and packing up stuff from his apartment in Westwood and then he was going to head up to Seattle to pack up stuff from the home he shares with his wife Celina, a noted photographer and artist. Soon, his new office will be stuffed.

“It’s gonna take about a month to get it all down to Long Beach,” he said, and that’s OK, because, while he plans to hit the ground running in his new job, the aquarium itself is hardly running at all because (do we even have to say this anymore) of COVID-19.

Peter Kareiva took over as president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific this month. Photo by Andrew Reitsma.

Replacing retiring President/CEO Jerry Schubel, who ran the facility for 18 years, is a daunting task for anyone, but Kareiva’s complete job-landing resume would gobble up the better part of a long story. The high points run backward from his current job as the director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. Before coming to UCLA, he was the chief scientist and vice president of The Nature Conservancy, where he was responsible for maintaining the quality of over 600 staff engaged in conservation science in 36 countries. And before that he was Director of Conservation Biology at the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center after a long stretch of college and university jobs teaching at the University of Washington, Brown University, Stanford University, the University of Virginia, Oxford University and others.

There’s a lot more, but we’ve seen enough to know he’s our man for running the aquarium.

“One of my good friends said, “Yet again you’re trying to show us how many jobs you can get with a Ph.D. in ecology,” he said.

Oh, yeah, his education: Kareiva studied political science and zoology at Duke University for his bachelor’s degree, and ecology and applied mathematics at Cornell University for his Ph.D.

Kareiva is fully aware of the kayak-size shoes he’ll soon be slipping into.

“Jerry’s done a fantastic job, in getting the aquarium connected with the community, in its volunteer program, cultural events, its lecture series. And he’s a fantastic scientist,” said Kareiva. “ I think perhaps the only area in which I’m his equal is in terms of my connections in the scientific community, and that comes mainly from my job at The Nature Conservancy,” one of the largest and most trustworthy environmental groups in the world. “I suspect that might be one of the reasons I got this job.”

It’s obvious that Kareiva comes to the aquarium at an exceedingly challenging time. Because of COVID, the facility has either been closed altogether or been limited solely to outdoor exhibits, while cutting the admission price to $12, about a half to a third of its normal admission of $24.95 for kids to $34.95 for adults.

As for his long term plans for the aquarium and what direction he wants to take it in, Kareiva said, “First I’ve gotta learn how to work the aquarium before I make any determination about that.”

So, let’s guess. For one thing,  he is, like Schubel, extremely interested in aquaculture and its potential to help bring jobs as well as a sustainable food source to California and beyond. While overfishing, pollution and climate change have brought havoc to the planet’s wild fish population, Kareiva believes that farming fish can be a booming business in California as it is in other countries.

“In the market now you’ll see a lot about ‘regenerative agriculture,’ ” he said. That’s a way of caring for healthy soil on farms and ranches to employ several techniques such as composting, crop rotation, planting windbreaks, cutting back on tilling and other means to reduce carbon loss and pull in and trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “It’s very popular in California right now,” he said. “But it’s all about making beef and ranching. If we’re going to celebrate regenerative agriculture for beef, then we should celebrate it 10 times more for aquaculture.”

So look for aquaculture to be on Kareiva’s syllabus once the aquarium is back up and running, if not sooner.

“I love teaching,” he says, and, so education, a huge, if not main part of Schubel’s contribution to the aquarium, will remain high on Kareiva’s list of priorities.

“I’d like to use the aquarium as a sort of STEM program for disadvantaged communities,” he said. “And to produce short videos for online instruction. A lot of time those educational videos consist of nothing more than a whiteboard and a person talking, but at the aquarium you could have the actual animals, a sea otter or a sea lion to elevate the experience.”

“The ideal teaching now, even before COVID, is to flip the classroom: no lecture, just activities. You might watch a video of a lecture then have a discussion. But the real learning is active learning and that’s what you can do at the aquarium, for both kids and adults, that’s where synapses connect that didn’t connect before. People are inspired. You can get people to engage in things they never thought of.”

At The Nature Conservancy, Kareiva was involved in a mentoring program with youths to help them get the skills needed to apply for college. “We had a lot of volunteers working with the kids. People like to make a difference in someone else’s life. It’s a powerful thing to do.”

More immediately, Kareiva is familiarizing himself a bit better with Long Beach.

“I’m going to rent a car and look around for a place to live within a couple of miles of the aquarium,” he said. Then, he plans to walk to and from work.

“I haven’t owned a car for a long time,” he said. “I’ve always rented apartments where I can walk to work. I’ve been walking to work for 30 years. You walk to work and sort of plan your day, and then you walk home and just detox. It’s calming and it’s kept me healthy.”

And he already has a good familiarity with the aquarium, if only as a visitor. “I’ve been several times,” he said. “When friends come to visit I take them to Long Beach, partly because I love the city. It’s got a lot of neat neighborhoods and it’s very walkable.”

Kareiva said he was once offered a job to direct the London Zoo. “I was going to take it, but my kids didn’t want to move to London. They were at that age…” That age when they didn’t want to leave their friends and move off to a country where they’d have to grapple with the metric system and a foreign language where boys are blokes and girls are birds.

Now, though, his kids are grown and living in the Pacific Northwest and they’re excited about their pop’s new gig.

“They can hardly wait to come down and visit the aquarium and get a backstage view of it,” says Kareiva. “I think this is the first job I’ve had where my kids have been excited to visit me.”

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email tim@lbpost.com, @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.