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Visitor Research: Aquariums are “conservation institutions” first, working well beyond their walls

European aquarium leaders say these conservation operations require a shift in resources

Two Oceans Aquarium conservation team, pictured here in 2020, release hatchling loggerhead turtles and one sub-adult green turtle south of Cape Point. (Photo: Conservation Magazine)

Watch the Webinar here. To learn more about the role of Species360 member aquariums in curating data for conservation research, go here.

European visitors say aquariums’ conservation work and public trust and endorsement are not only innately connected but increasingly have become central descriptors of these institutions. This is just one of several key findings presented by IMPACTS Experience research analysts Colleen Dilenschneider and Jim Hekkers during a webinar hosted by Species360 – but is one that generated the most discussion among a panel of aquarium leaders.

More than 300 people attended the webinar and panel discussion, which shared the results of new research on visitor perceptions of aquariums in Europe. The webinar is the second in a series, with a summer 2021 webinar presenting similar views in the United States.

IMPACTS analyst Colleen says the growing perception of European aquariums as being admired, trusted, and acting as conservation organizations bodes well as long as conservation actions take a central role in their stories and educational initiatives.

“We see strong correlation between the extent to which an aquarium is perceived as a conservation organization and how much it is admired, trusted, and positively endorsed. This also correlates with more sustainable financial health … as we often say, the research indicates that ‘being good at your cause is good for your business.'”

– Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Experience Officer, IMPACTS Experience

Powerful stories at the heart of that connection come from husbandry, education, and conservation-related teams, say industry leaders. In a discussion following the Webinar, participants from leading aquarium conservation programs talked about what this means for future planning.

First, much of that knowledge can, and should, address species close to home, panelists say.

“It is very important that we work with species that are close and to connect visitors with projects, so that they can act when they live near the species. We disseminate this message and bring awareness to those projects that our visitors can connect with. For example, manta rays, as a migratory species, frequent the Azores in summer months and many don’t know this. Part of our role is to make people aware and to be more curious and protective of this species in our country.”

Núria Baylina, Curator and Head of Conservation, Oceanário de Lisboa

In many cases, “close to home” means freshwater species which are in danger in our rivers, streams, and lakes.

“In terms of conservation, the biggest role that aquariums can play is in regard to freshwater. Today’s least concern species are the threatened species of tomorrow. Freshwater species are often small and so receptive to rapid change, when a stream becomes polluted those species are quickly lost.”

Brian Zimmerman, Director of Conservation and Science, Bristol Zoological Society (the conservation and education charity which manages and operates Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project), and Chair of the Freshwater Teleost Taxon Advisory Group

In short, aquariums are required to expand and reinforce resources such as those required to support sustainable collections.

“To be sustainable, collections must be healthy in terms of behavioral, medical, and genetic considerations. This is where the EAZA biobank is essential, to be a resource for the EAZA community to support management of our populations and conservation in general . Yes, we sustain insurance populations and even populations that are extinct in the wild, and we help to ensure they are genetically healthy and that the populations we have represent the genetics of those in the wild”.

Christina Hvilsom, Ph.D., Geneticist at Copenhagen Zoo and Chair of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Biobank

How the conservation message is shared was also a point of discussion, as aquarium leaders talked about the importance of connecting with people at home and in venues beyond their immediate walls. Fortunately, the aquarium community has strengthened its online impact during pandemic closures, as both institution and communities turn to digital content to connect.

“For many aquariums, a key goal has been to extend your reach outside of the immediate facility and into the broader community. With the growth in online initiatives, we ARE outside our walls.”

Jim Hekkers, Chief Strategy Officer, IMPACTS Experience

Data collection is also key to sustainable population management and future conservation and research, said panelists, and begins with the individuals that care for animals, groups, and enclosures.

“Data collection, registrars, and global databases like ZIMS (the Zoological Information Management System) are increasingly important in terms of information we are collecting regarding our populations and in particular those species that need management. We are training teams to do better data collection and management in their day-to-day routine, and standardizing what they are collecting so that it is of use in the future. This is for our own use and to contribute to the larger pool of knowledge that is out there”

Bristol Zoological Society Director of Conservation and Science Brian Zimmerman

Aquariums’ role in conservation will continue to demand a wider set of highly-specialized resources. It’s a role that will require aquatics teams to address a growing array of demands on the husbandry, population management, medical, welfare, and conservation duties that consume their days.

“The aquarium role is shifting. Today we are asked to do so much more. As we turn our attention to managed breeding programs, we need resources for those unique species that we will be raising — including the geneticists and registrars that are essential to continue this important work.”

Sandy Trautwein, Ph.D., Director of Aquatic Conservation, Species360, and panel moderator

Watch the Webinar here. To learn more about the role of Species360 member aquariums in curating data for conservation research, go here.

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