Ventilating radioactive ideas at the Aquarium of the Pacific

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: "When ideas are seen as dangerous, some people think the best thing to do is to kill them," Jerry Schubel, the president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, told a group of reporters gathered for a breakfast briefing at the aquarium in Long Beach last week. "We want to keep them in play, like birdies in a badminton game."

While busloads of school children filled the aquarium with noisy admiration for its traditional offerings, schools of vibrant sea life shimmering behind plates of glass, Schubel sketched out a new role for the aquarium: rebooting the environmental message that has become gospel for many ocean protection organizations, including most aquaria.

schubel300.jpgThe ocean is not just a vast, still largely unknown frontier to be protected like wilderness from creeping industrialization and overfishing, argued Schubel, who is on the science advisory boards of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and California's Ocean Protection Council. The ocean is a huge, important, productive resource for humanity in the 21st century.

This message "often puts us at odds with our fellow organizations," Schubel acknowledged. But "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging," he said. "Most environmentalists keep digging." Continuing a conservative strategy based just on protecting the oceans is not enough, Schubel said, to stem the threats facing marine life.

"California has been a model leader in using science to protect areas of biological significance," he said. "But we've lagged in identifying areas that could be used to benefit society."

Schubel wants the Aquarium of the Pacific to be seen as a place where controversial ideas--such as large-scale offshore fish farms, genetically modified crops, ocean desalination as a solution for drought, and nuclear power's role in our energy portfolio--can be "ventilated" with "the best scientists we can bring to the table."

We live in an age of "free choice learning," Schubel said. "People learn when, where, and what they want, and walk away." They come to the aquarium "to have fun," he added, and he and his staff have to figure out how to "snooker them into learning something."

Last week, on the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the aquarium's message could fairly be summarized as "keep calm and enjoy the ocean." Responding to widespread concern on the West Coast about radiation spreading across the Pacific, Schubel unveiled a new video documentary that is now playing regularly on the aquarium's flashy "science on a sphere"--a virtual globe that displays real time environmental data from around the world as well as documentaries produced by the aquarium and 109 other partner organizations around the world.

The documentary dramatically recounts the "largest release of radiation in the ocean in history," but then goes on to carefully discuss how radioactive isotopes that can be traced to the accident have yet to show up on the West Coast. The leading edge of the contamination is just beginning to arrive, said Ken Buessler, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who joined Schubel for the briefing. The radioactive signal from Fukushima will increase the natural background radiation slightly over the coming years, Buessler said. But you could swim in the ocean off of Long Beach every day for a year, he added, and be exposed to a thousand times less radiation from the Fukushima accident than you would get from a routine dental X-ray or a cross-country flight from LAX to JFK.

"We should remember that we live on a radioactive planet," Schubel concluded.

And the Aquarium of the Pacific is gearing up to tackle even more such complicated and controversial issues straight ahead.


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