How the Monterey Bay Aquarium Is a Model of a Nimble Business

What do you do when the foundation of your business disappears? You’ve got two choices: change your business or save the foundation.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is in the business of teaching the public about life underwater, and that life is rapidly disappearing due to overfishing, pollution, and climate change—and the team at the aquarium decided to attack the problem from both directions. This is no small matter.

Because of overfishing, as much as 90% of the world’s large fish like shark, swordfish, and cod have disappeared from the oceans. Climate change and pollution attack the oceans from the other side: Climate change contributes to ocean acidification, which impacts the ability of fish to spawn and eggs to grow properly—a wide variety of species are impacted.

Here is how the aquarium adapted:

First, they shifted their business model away from purely showcasing the beauty under the sea. They still do that, which I found out firsthand at an after-hours event in the aquarium for attendees of Sustainable Brands 2010. The exhibits are still absolutely stunning, from the secret lives of seahorses to the technicolor jellyfish that become invisible when the lights go out.

However, peppered between the windows was a healthy reality check about how close to the edge the entire system is. A neat chart briefly describes ocean acidification, but delves quickly into an example anyone can understand: Sea urchins cannot survive the change in pH, and if they die off, everything that eats them (including the adorable otter) is also at risk.

Ocean acidifcation is hard to wrap your head around—but a hungry otter is all too easy to visualize. Other examples focus on the real world impact of the average tuna fish sandwich or sushi dinner.

Second, they are trying to save the fish. As Jim Hekkers, the managing director of the aquarium, mentioned in a presentation about the disappearance of fish species, “There’s not a lot of mystery here. We caught them all and then we ate them.”

The aquarium has a wide variety of strategies to preserve and rebuild fish populations—most notably their Seafood Watch cards, which help consumers remember which fish are safe to eat. A staggering 32 million pocket guides have been distributed since 1999.

Finally, they are working to improve the oceans, with a brand new category for their Seafood Watch cards: The super green list, which draws the connection between human and ocean health, and teaches people which fish are good to eat—as well as which are sustainable to catch.

This level of detail allows the folks at the aquarium to draw an additional line of relevance for visitors. The connection between human and oceanic health becomes all the more obvious when we are shown how our actions can have a positive or negative impact on our surroundings.

The aquarium might be a non-profit on the edge, they are a thriving and nimble business many CEOs could learn from.

Jen Boynton

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and normally happy baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.