New 2015 research reveals an ocean of opportunities

This is a guest post by Jim Hekkers of Monterey Bay Aquarium and Kathy Sher of National Aquarium Collectively, the two of us have been working in the aquarium world for over 50 years and have watched aquariums work to raise awareness regarding the threats facing our ocean. While we wish we could say that there has been significant success over that period of time, the latest research shows that is not necessarily the case. The public cares about the ocean, but still doesn’t see the threats to the ocean or our changing climate as urgent enough to take the kind of dramatic action required. That said, however, the research also shows lots of exciting opportunities for aquariums and zoos to become bolder leaders for conservation impact, as it supports the shift we’ve started to see with more and more of our institutions moving away from a focus on raising awareness of the problems and towards engaging visitors in the solutions.

Since our involvement in helping to launch The Ocean Project with several other aquarium leaders in the late 1990s, this unique organization has been supporting aquariums and zoos, and many other organizations to advance ocean and climate conservation. This collaborative effort has served as a critical foundation for helping our organizations be grounded in solid data to achieve our missions, and The Ocean Project has provided cutting edge market and communications research since 1999.

In the latest chapter of what has developed into the largest public opinion research project ever conducted on the oceans, climate change, and related environmental concerns, and how to help engage and motivate our visitors, at the 2015 AZA Directors’ Policy Conference last week we presented a summary of all Ocean Project research over the years, including fresh data from the summer of 2014. This third comprehensive national survey–with great thanks to our research partner, IMPACTS Research–engaged 11,000 Americans, for a total of over 100,000 Americans surveyed since 2008.

The audience for the AZA presentation was critically important, with some 150 executive directors and/or CEOs of the nation’s zoos and aquariums, large and small, coastal and inland. Collectively, these organizations reach millions visitors each year, and one of the key findings from the research is how highly trusted our institutions are, not only for education on our animals and conservation, but also guidance on how to help with solutions to environmental problems. We urged the audience to let the research findings help inform their work in encouraging public action on conservation.

Since The Ocean Project began its research and collaborative outreach some 17 years ago, aquariums and zoos have been changing the way they engage with our visitors, focusing much more on conservation outcomes and impact. While we and other aquariums and zoos have been using The Ocean Project’s and others’ research to inform and help guide our individual and collective conservation activities, the data tells us that we have made limited progress in raising these issues to a high enough level of public concern. Based on the research, it’s time to try some different approaches to ensure that visitor-serving organizations achieve greater measurable progress in our lifetimes.


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Based on the good questions and comments we had last week, we are hopeful that aquariums and zoos will step up to the challenge and re-double our efforts to advance climate and ocean conservation, working with our individual visitors and as institutional anchors in communities across the country and around the world. Our future depends on it.

If you’d like to read The Ocean Project’s latest report with specific findings, you can download it here.