Dr. Jerry Schubel on Reimagining Humanity's Relationship to the Ocean

Dr. Jerry Schubel

As blue tech and ocean research emerge as opportunities for technological advancement, economic development, and private investment in the Los Angeles region, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach continues to pioneer a new approach to water resources. For the institution's 20thbirthday, a cutting-edge new addition will explore climate change adaptation and the ability of the oceans to deliver food, energy, and medicine to a growing global population. In this VX News interview, aquarium president Dr. Jerry Schubel elaborates on the Aquarium's unique role in California's growing blue economy and the need to reimagine humanity's relationship with the ocean.

Dr. Schubel, you've served as president of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach since 2002. Share the array of services the aquarium provides to the Southern California region and the global marine research ecosystem.

Jerry Schubel: Some would say that we’re in the aquarium business; I prefer to say that we're in the engagement business. We engage the public through programs that engage, entertain, educate, and empower. Our extensive collection of marine animals draws people in and gives us the opportunity to engage them in thought-provoking discussions about our relationship with the ocean and how we are affecting it and the life that inhabits it.

We routinely convene experts to examine the issues facing our ocean—many of which are driven by human activity on land—and to explore alternative ways of managing those issues. We're not a research-intensive organization; we do secondary research by bringing experts to the table to tell us what they think the public needs to know about important environmental and ocean issues. We then put our expertise to work to package this information in ways that will engage the public.

What public programming is currently offered at the Aquarium of the Pacific?

For the last several years, we’ve attracted more than 1.7 million visitors a year. Every day, schoolchildren come for field trips that include tours and interaction with our animals and our educators. We have a public lecture at least once a week and multi-day forums twice a year that bring together experts on quite a diversity of topics, including marine aquaculture, marine spatial planning, climate change and sea level rise, and offshore oil exploration. We also offer citizen science programs that get people directly involved with science projects and wildlife monitoring conducted in their community.

Each year, we offer two short courses through our Aquatic Academy. These courses allow participants to do a deeper dive into the most pressing environmental topics of our time and learn about solutions from experts working in the relevant fields. The current course is entitled, "How will we feed an additional 2 to 2.5 billion people by 2100?" It looks at how agriculture can become sustainable in the face of climate change, and the role the ocean could and should play in feeding a growing global population.

This is one of the major questions the Aquarium wants to engage in with the public. The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet it contributes only about 2 percent of our total calories and about 16 percent of our animal protein. The potential here is much greater than what we've realized, and there's an opportunity for California and the United States to be major players.

The Aquarium is now completing a significant building addition called Pacific Visions. Highlight the new facilities that will be offered to the public.

This aquarium opened in 1998 as a traditional aquarium with beautiful live animal exhibits. We do more hands-on activities than is typical of aquariums, and we have features you would find in science centers, such as our Science on a Sphere, a global display system developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Our expansion is called Pacific Visions, and it will open in late spring 2019. It's a very untraditional aquarium expansion in that it doesn’t focus on bigger tanks for bigger animals. Instead, it focuses on the one animal that has put all the other animals on the planet at risk. That one animal, of course, is us.

With some of the best scientists in the world, Pacific Visions uses media and technology to tell the changing story of the relationship between humans and the ocean and our planet as a whole and what it will take to make that relationship sustainable. We certainly are not on a path to sustainability at present, but we are a creative species and we hope to inspire visitors to unleash creativity to find innovative pathways to a better future.

What was the mission given to the architects designing Pacific Visions?

The architect is San Francisco's EHDD, who did our original building 20 years ago. We told them we wanted this building to be a platform for telling the story of humans and the ocean. That meant that the design would have to be very flexible, because that story needs to be periodically updated, as it is changing more rapidly than at any time in the 200,000 years of human history.

The building was designed from the inside out. Visitors begin the Pacific Visions experience in an art gallery, then move into an orientation gallery and view a brief pre-show. Next, they enter an immersive theatre with a 130-foot long, three-story-tall, arced screen that captures their peripheral vision. We can simulate the sights, sounds, and smells of the ocean to reflect its changing moods and tell stories about life on Earth on a grand scale.

When they leave the theater, they enter the culmination gallery, where they will examine how the choices we make, particularly around energy, food, and water, will determine the future we will live in. There, visitors will be invited to join a community committed to making California a model of sustainability for the rest of the world.

On the exterior of the building, we wanted to display the changing moods of the ocean. The building’s exterior is covered in more than 800 pieces of blue glass of different sizes, each made up of three layers. The mood of the building, like that of the ocean, changes from morning to night; it changes if it's sunny or if there's a marine layer. It has many personalities—just like the ocean. We think it's quite a magical building, and it's the most powerful platform for telling these big stories that we know of anywhere.

We're making a big bet that this is something people will be interested in. We have to change the way we humans live on Earth and the way we interact with the ocean. That was the motivating factor for Pacific Visions.

Speak to the value of the partnerships—such as with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), XPrize, and AltaSea—the Aquarium has entered into during your tenure.

We couldn't do anything we do without partnerships. In our partnerships with other aquariums, we share animals and best practices on caring for them in an aquarium setting. This allows us to avoid depleting wild populations and helps to build critical knowledge about the species we house that contributes to conservation efforts. But what sets us apart are the partnerships that we have with federal agencies, like NOAA; universities across the country; art centers, like the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; and other cultural institutions.

Scientific bench strength in most aquariums is sometimes limited, except in the area of animal husbandry—and nobody beats aquariums in their knowledge of animal husbandry. But the big stories the public needs to know require knowledge about oceanography, Earth systems science, climate change, economics, and much more. Our partnerships have been key to telling those stories, because we’re able to bring experts with diverse knowledge and skillsets to the table to give these issues richness and depth.

You also sit on the board of the state of California's Ocean Science Trust, and were a member of the science advisory team to the Ocean Protection Council for a number of years. Why?

California has a very strong ocean ethic. But the ocean is changing, and our relationship with it has to change, as well. We're going to have to rely on the ocean more than we have in the past, and the challenge is how to use the ocean for more food, energy, minerals, pharmaceuticals, and even fresh water without destroying the marine ecosystems that provide the services we depend upon for our survival.

California has a wonderful opportunity here, but it's going to require taking a much broader view of ocean stewardship. We have a wonderful coastal ocean, one that is rich with opportunity for creating green jobs and supporting local economies. But we have not been able to seize that opportunity because of a regulatory environment that strangles innovation.

This is a result, in part, of Californians' rightly held respect and reverence for their coast and ocean, which is the envy of the world and is iconic to our identity as a state. We need to build a system that makes room for innovative industries that are held to a high environmental standard while relaxing some of our current regulatory constraints. We have the knowledge to do that, but it takes political will.

Marine aquaculture is a good example. One of only two shellfish farms in United States federal waters is right here off California; we also have one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones on Earth. Yet California hasn't issued a new shellfish aquaculture permit in more than 20 years. This is a huge, unrealized opportunity to increase sustainable, nutritious food production in a changing climate. We should seize it.

Marine aquaculture is not antithetical to conserving marine ecosystems. Indeed, when done properly, it can contribute to enhancing marine ecosystems. Californians are very interested in food that is produced locally, ethically, and sustainably, and the Aquarium can help them learn how we can build that industry here.

Elaborate on the local and global impacts of ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is a result of climate change. Some of the CO2 that we add to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, changing land-use practices, and agriculture gets transferred to the ocean. When it reacts with seawater, it produces more hydrogen ions and makes the ocean more acidic over time.

The ocean today is about 30 percent more acidic now than it was 200 years ago near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. By the end of the century, it could be 100 percent more acidic or even more.

As the ocean gets more acidic, it becomes harder for animals like shellfish and some plankton to create their shells or calcium carbonate skeletons. This has implications for both wild populations and aquaculture shellfish operations.

Locally, there are coastal embayments where we could grow marine plants of various kinds—seagrass beds, for example—that remove CO2 from the water and the atmosphere. This could reduce the level of acidity a modest amount and provide some buffer for shellfish.

But we have to acknowledge that this is a global phenomenon, and California can’t do very much about that. While we're doing a good job of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by moving aggressively toward renewable energy, California's total emissions account for about 1 percent of global emissions. Even if we went to zero greenhouse gas emissions, it wouldn't change the global situation very much.

Where California can be a leader is in figuring out ways to adapt to an increasingly acidic ocean. One exciting thing happening here is that leaders are developing new strains of shellfish that are more tolerant to acidic waters. That's one area where I think we have a big opportunity for leadership.

Given the results of the national and state elections in November, what would you like to see state and federal elected representatives prioritize to further the ambitions of the Aquarium?

I'm hoping that we’ll get some creative, imaginative thinking about how human beings are going to survive and thrive in this new geologic era called the Anthropocene. And specifically, I would like to see California develop a model for a new relationship with the ocean.

We have the largest agricultural economy of any state in the nation. We provide fruits and vegetables to many in the United States. But our agricultural industry takes 25 percent of California’s land area, uses 70 percent of our developed fresh water and produces about a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is going to have to change in order to be a sustainable thriving industry in the face of climate change. One of the most important changes is the transfer of much of our animal protein production from land to ocean.

I would like to see us develop an integrated food supply for a growing population that incorporates sustainable agriculture with sustainable mariculture—farming the sea. That would benefit us environmentally and economically, and it could become a model that could be exported to other nations.

California has got to set an example. We're not known for innovative approaches to using the ocean. We are known for setting aside marine-protected areas. That’s good, but in a world of climate change, marine-protected areas—no matter how many or how big—are only a piece of the puzzle to saving marine life and marine ecosystems. We have the opportunity to do much more.

How might Los Angeles and Southern California "do more?"

In Los Angeles, we often talk about the blue economy. The blue economy is not just about high-tech gizmos that do things that you can build businesses around. The highest level of technology transfer is translating advances in knowledge and understanding into entirely new approaches, new policies, and new fields that open up doors and opportunities.

The greatest asset we have in the Los Angeles area is the intellectual capital in our colleges and universities. When it comes to building gizmos, San Diego has more opportunities than we do. What we have is great intellectual capacity and diversity of knowledge workers, and that means we have the ability to step back and reframe the relationship of California to the ocean.

Every coastal state should do this, but none has a greater opportunity than California. We would reap enormous environmental and economic benefits, for our state and for the nation. We could become a model for the United States and the rest of the world.

The United States was founded as a maritime nation, but we have lost that leadership, except in research. It's time to harness that research into policy and practice.

To close, how will the Aquarium of the Pacific celebrate its 20th anniversary?

We've had an ongoing series of celebrations for our 20th anniversary, including lectures, forums, member events, and a luncheon for the 50 or so staff members who have been here for all 20 years. We have invited the community to celebrate with us by visiting the nearly two dozen animals that have lived here since the Aquarium opened, and by sharing with us their memories and stories of the Aquarium's impact. We have also hosted art exhibits and lectures that celebrate our history.

We've come a long way. In the 16 years that I've been here, we increased our attendance by 70 percent. But we'll celebrate more when we get to 50 years. Right now, we're tipping our hat to the previous 20 years because they have put us in a position where we have a voice. The Aquarium has been a wonderful success story so far, but now, with the Pacific Visions expansion, we're going to the World Series.

"I would like to see California develop a model for a new relationship with the ocean." —Dr. Jerry Schubel