Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says two big issues facing marine life today are overfishing and ocean plastic pollution. Consumer choices are critical for recovery.
Marine conservationist Julie Packard visited the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo on Feb. 27 to give a public lecture on “Changing Seas and Changing Minds.”
In her talk, Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, explored human impacts on the marine environment focusing on the state of seafood and ocean plastic pollution. She also covered new research developments and sustainability efforts developed by the aquarium and its affiliates.
Packard is a powerful advocate not only for conservation, which she hopes to inspire in those who visit the aquarium, but also for human impacts, including science, technology, engineering, and math, known as STEM, education for girls.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, a family legacy
Packard was herself inspired by the ocean and its creatures from an early age. She tells a story about a childhood vacation to Kona where she spent time fishing with her father.
“I recall pulling the beautiful reef fish up and seeing them flop on the hot concrete and just slowly expire and lose their color,” she says. “I remember a very clear message: ocean life is better alive than dead.”
That was one experience among many that inspired Packard’s dedication to marine conservation.
Packard’s family was always passionate about science, and they practiced that passion by building a trust to fund the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a nonprofit public aquarium in Monterey, CA. The aquarium focuses on the marine habitats of Monterey Bay and was the first to exhibit a living kelp forest when it opened in October 1984.
The aquarium was built in old cannery buildings that were previously devoted to processing sardines before the California sardine fishery collapsed. The museum’s location in the old canneries is a reminder of its mission to foster sustainability in marine environments, and as Packard says, “to inspire conservation, not just do conservation.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium accomplishes its mission by funding education for the public on marine ecosystems and the threats marine life faces at the hands of human beings. In the process, aquarium visitors are inspired to make choices that will help conservation efforts and reduce negative impacts on marine life.
“The ocean today is under siege by myriad perturbations,” says Packard. Two big issues that face marine life today are overfishing and ocean plastic pollution. Packard explored these topics with an emphasis on conservation solutions.
Packard says that the two keys to sustainable fishing are good science and good government: a sound scientific understanding of the impact of fishing practices and governmental oversight to ensure that fishing companies adhere to regulations. She says 80 percent of seafood fisheries are fully exploited, over-exploited, or collapsed, and the industry has taken over $50 billion in losses.
In order to help the world move toward sustainable seafood sourcing, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has launched the Seafood Watch program, an online service that ranks seafood by its sustainability. This service can help guide consumer choices toward sustainably-fished seafood.
“We decided that the underpinning of our strategy here would not be to work on overfishing laws but to work on changing the market toward sustainable seafood, toward creating demand for more sustainable seafood.”
Packard hopes the program will encourage consumers to make sustainable choices, which will shift the market demand and show fishers and farmers the need for transition to sustainable seafood practices. Packard is optimistic about the impact of these ventures while noting that policy change is also very important.
“[The] market-based conservation strategy is really working well, ultimately you need policy and regulations, that’s sort of the end goal,” she explains.
A choice-based market shift is critical in the fight against ocean plastic pollution as well.
Global plastic production has increased 230-fold since 1950, and educating consumers about the impacts of single-use plastics on the ocean and the link between plastic production and climate change can help curb plastic usage.
“It turns out,” says Packard, “(the United States) has a big role in ocean plastic pollution. We are the source of a lot of plastic pollution.”
Encouraging consumers to make sustainable choices can help reduce the impact of plastics in the ocean, but it has to be paired with regulation as well, including an increase in marine protected areas such as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument that encompasses 583,000 square miles of ocean waters, including ten islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
“We need more protected areas in the ocean,” she explains. “The UN has set a goal to have 30 percent of nature protected in these areas by 2030. That’s a lot. Fully protected marine environments in the ocean right now (are) less than five percent.”
Recovery is possible
Packard says marine protected areas give ocean life a chance to recover, something which is vital to the continued health of ocean ecosystems.
“Given a chance to recover, scientists say that actually the global seafood supply can grow,” says Packard. “We could actually harvest more fish than we’re harvesting now if we were doing it in a better way.”
Packard and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are dedicated to realizing these positive futures for the ocean both by inspiring conservation in the community and by working on conservation out in the world’s oceans. To find out ways to make sustainable choices and help work toward a sustainable future for the ocean, visit the aquarium’s website.
Packard’s talk was part of the Rose and Raymond Tseng Distinguished Lecture Series.
By Evangeline Lemieux, who is double majoring in English and medical anthropology at UH Hilo.
Photos of Julie Packard’s presentation by Cooper Lund, a marine science major at UH Hilo.