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Leon Kaye headshot

Ahead of World Oceans Day, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seeks More Victories for the Seas

By Leon Kaye

With less than a week before World Oceans Day on June 8, global leaders will convene in New York next week for a United Nations conference on ocean conservation and sustainability.

One leading oceans advocate who is determined to see this meeting spark more global action is Julie Packard, Executive Director and Vice Chair of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), which she helped establish in the late 1970s. In addition to the extensive number of science and conservation programs, MBA also serves as a think tank where researchers and thought leaders can explore trends including seafood alternatives and human rights in the global seafood supply chain.

TriplePundit recently spoke with Packard by telephone as she was preparing The Ocean Conference, which starts on Monday. MBA has a long history of advocacy, and its most recent success was helping to convince Californians to approve a ban on the free distribution of plastic bags at most retailers last November. Packard discussed with 3p the vision she and MBA share for a successful New York event, and she shared her perspectives on what she believes can be done to improve the oceans’ health worldwide.

One exciting development for MBA is today's announcement of a global program that aims to improve the traceability within the tuna industry’s supply chain. Packard noted that while tuna fisheries in the Atlantic are recovering, they are collapsing in the Pacific. “With their numbers at 3 percent of historic levels, they are on the brink,” she said.

MBA has a long history of raising the public’s awareness of the oceans’ depletion with its Seafood Watch program, an online resource that helps businesses and consumers make more informed purchasing decisions. According to Packard, this program will soon include data that will inform consumers and businesses if they fish they consider purchasing risks having links to company accused of human rights violations.

Also high on the priority list for Packard is ocean acidification. A recent Oregon State University study suggests acidified ocean water is more widespread along the U.S. west coast than previously thought. That is a huge threat to the Monterey Bay region, which Packard has touted as a model study for how a coastal economy can balance the needs of tourism, conservation and local fishing businesses. Packard hopes the conference can result in a strong international alliance that can rally around solutions to counter increasing ocean acidification. “We’ve led the nation and the world in this space,” explained Packard, “and the Monterey Bay is a picture of how things can be done right for oceans.”

But if one problem succeeds in scoring the public’s attention, it is ocean plastic pollution – as recently highlighted by an uninhabited island halfway between Chile and New Zealand that researchers say has garnered as many as 18 tons of discarded plastic items. From Packard’s point of view, it is on this front where aquariums can shine. “We’ve launched a partnership of nearly all of the aquariums in the U.S., and plastic pollution is one key point on which we can work together on collective action on aquatic conservation goals,” said Packard.

As MBA has long been a leader in informing consumers on how to select the best possible wild and farmed fish options, 3p asked Packard whether a boost in aquaculture in the U.S. can help address problems such as the depletion of fisheries and human rights violations. The U.S. imports most of its seafood, and compared to other countries, its aquaculture business aside from operations producing freshwater fish is a relatively tiny sector. With aquaculture techniques constantly improving, could this business grow in the U.S. and relieve the burden on the world’s oceans? After all, supporters of aquaculture have long said it is key to feeding a world that will have to support 9 billion people by 2050.

“There’s good progress being made in aquaculture,” Packard replied, “but the question is, can these businesses do it sustainably?”

Organizations such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, from her point of view, have helped complement MBA’s efforts to educate consumers on how to select more sustainable seafood. And consumer pressure over the years have also helped the industry to cooperate in order to make it a more responsible producer of food. And now, as Packard reminded 3p during the interview, shellfish produced by aquaculture operations is one of the best options available to consumers. “Filter feeding shellfish is the cleanest, greenest seafood you can eat,” she said.

Aquaculture faces additional challenges. Packard mentioned the overlapping jurisdictions covering America’s waters, which can result in a very complicated permitting process. And for fisherman in regions such as the Gulf of Mexico, where fisheries are still on the mend years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, aquaculture is seen as competing with their struggling businesses. The practice has also run into opposition in areas with a long legacy of salmon fishing, especially Alaska. Nevertheless, aquaculture could be future option, said Packard, “especially if this is done far offshore, and in a way that doesn’t create the pollution issues and escape problems the industry has faced over the years.”

Whether from solutions like slashing the use of disposable plastics, boosting aquaculture or mitigating climate change, restoring the health of the world’s oceans will be an uphill fight for MBA, Packard and their allies. The current presidential administration’s refusal to link climate change to the oceans’ environment has reportedly complicated preparations for next week’s U.N. oceans conference. Meanwhile the Ocean Health Index is one of many environmental groups that insist that the vast majority of coastal regions worldwide are at serious risk. But if there is one organization that has a track record at building coalitions that can help aquatic ecosystems recover, it is this three-decade-old aquarium and research center in Monterey that can lead by example in New York this week.

Image credit: Jay Ross/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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