Connections: The Aquarium and the Waterfront

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Deep sea coral forests can be as many as 4000 years old.

Conserving what’s on the bottom of our oceans can be a tough sell.  We can’t see it or touch it.  It’s out of sight and out of mind for all of us except a few scientists.

That’s changing, thanks to the contributions of marine scientists James L. Bodkin and Elliott A. Norse, and others like them, to the cause of marine conservation.  These two were honored at the Seattle Aquarium last week.  I want to discuss the work of one of the recipients, Elliott Norse, Ph.D. and how it impressed me.

Dr. Norse, recipient of the 2012 Seattle Aquarium Medal, is a congenial scientist who has dedicated his life to searching for ecological alternatives that we non-scientists can support and understand.  Dr. Norse is Founder and CEO of the Marine Conservation Institute, a Bellevue-based nonprofit dedicated to winning legal protections for ocean ecosystems worldwide.

Dr. Elliott Norse

He explained why marine conservation is so difficult.  Most of us have deep, personal connections with forests – we can smell  them, we’ve hiked in them, and camped in them. We also know they help keep our air clean, so we naturally want to protect them.  

Contrast that with marine conservation: only a very few highly specialized scientists know the terrain of the deepest seas.  We scuba divers can only access the top 1% of the oceans and we generally see only near-shore reefs and sea life.  The other 99% of the ocean is hidden from our view.

I took a peek before dinner at the baby otter with her mom Aniak. I watched Mom lift her baby out of the water and groom her. Awwww….

Over the past decades,  many nations have carefully protected their near shore reefs. We can see those. But when a deep sea trawler rakes up a 4000-year old coral forest (4000-year old!!) in search of shrimp, crab, or fish there’s no one to around to see it, much less to question whether the seafood could be obtained less destructively or in a sustainable new way.  Another example of “Out of sight, out of mind,” as Dr. Norse cautioned us.  

The exhibits and programs created by the Aquarium help reveal to us what we don’t see and help us think about what we are doing to our oceans.

The work done by the Seattle Aquarium and its partners show that the decisions we and our friends make about on- and near-shore areas affect what happens offshore.  Making progress requires us to be aware of the problem in the first place.

Close-up courtesy of the Aquarium

As we create Seattle’s new waterfront, the Aquarium will be a central player.  It will extend its experiential learning programs right to our downtown shoreline.  We residents and millions of visitors will learn more about how we can protect our marine environment right here at home. Every little effort matters.

In a few years we Seattle residents and our visitors will stroll along the newly rebuilt Alaskan Way and take the walkway from the Pike Place Market to our waterfront. We will be surrounded by newly planted native plants and trees. As the Olympic Mountains and sparkling clean Puget Sound provide breathtaking views, we can use our membership card to stop by our Seattle Aquarium and show our kids and grandkids what a clean Puget Sound means. We can do what Dr. Norse suggested:  Take care of our Sound, and the fish and marine mammals therein, and the Sound will take care of us.