Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul interviews Shedd Aquarium’s Manager of Conservation Communications Development, Meg Matthews, to learn just how Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, one of the leaders in the industry, has embraced the green movement.
With zoo and aquariums contributing over 170 million dollars to aquatic and terrestrial field conservation in as recent as 2010, there is no doubt that living institutions are focused on sustainable initiatives for the planet and dedicated to preserving global ecological health, which serves the flora, fauna, and mankind inhabiting the planet.
Yes, aquariums focus their interests on aquatic biomes of the world, but when you think about it, are there any other ecosystems on Earth that contain such vital natural resources that influence life to such a degree as those which support surface water environments and associated watersheds.
After all, water-rich environments not only support an abundance of biodiversity living in fresh, brackish and marine habitats, they sustain life on Earth, even in the most arid regions of the world.
Hence, the mitigation of overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and other aquatic issues directly protects the world’s waterways for us all. This is something the Shedd Aquarium is most cognizant of, but the Aquarium also realizes that it has an opportunity to model sustainability for guests, fellow zoos and aquariums, and the larger business community
Shedd Aquarium is a historic captive wildlife facility holding 5-million gallons of water and is home to more than 32,500 animals. Although the majority of their living ambassadors are aquatic species, they also manage terrestrial organisms from avifauna to herpetofauna.
First and foremost, Shedd’s mission is to “connects people to the living world.” The Aquarium and its staff “engages and inspires, entertains and informs.” Together they are a “vital teaching and learning resource, conservation leader, neighborhood partner and global collaborator.” At Shedd the staff is “passionate about the animals they care for, their habitats and the planet we all share.”
Interview with Meg Matthews:
Jordan Schaul: What is the Aquarium’s philosophy about adopting green practices? How does it fit into your mission of conserving aquatic life?
Meg Matthews: Shedd Aquarium’s mission is that animals connect you to the living world, inspiring you to make a difference. Our own operational sustainability is an integral part of how Shedd inspires people to make that difference. By modeling green behavior and showing people the resource-saving actions that we take around our aquarium home, we hope they’ll be energized to find similar solutions for environmental challenges in their homes, too.
Green practices are also imperative for us as a conservation organization. We want to operate in ways that help to support healthy aquatic ecosystems at home on the Great Lakes and around the world.
Jordan Schaul: Do your field initiatives in water-rich regions complement your green practices here at home?
Meg Matthews: Absolutely! In our living world, everything is connected. For example, in partnership with the SECORE Foundation, we conduct ongoing research on coral reproduction and restoration in the Caribbean. These reef-forming corals are critically endangered due to a range of environmental stressors, including water pollution. In order to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy these stunning undersea ecosystems, Shedd must not only continue its field-based restoration work but also take steps at home to minimize the aquarium’s day-to-day environmental impacts. So our all-organic gardens filter clean rainwater and keep chemical fertilizers and pesticides out of the sewers, where they would eventually make their way down the Mississippi River into the ecologically stressed Gulf of Mexico, whose corals are at-risk from water pollution.
Jordan Schaul: Operating a world-class aquarium which includes a strong representation of Great Lakes fishes and invertebrates on display is no small feat. But, the aquarium does a lot to reduce energy use, which in fact cuts costs in this time of economic downturn?
Meg Matthews: Shedd launched its original energy conservation plan in 1996, when we modified lighting, converted our mechanical systems to automated technology, and took other actions that reduced our energy use significantly. Since then, we’ve continued to tackle energy conservation. This year, we received a $98,000 rebate from our energy supplier, ComEd, after we replaced our old chillers with high-efficiency models.
Jordan Schaul: The culture at the Shedd is one that suggests everybody has an investment in adopting green practices. From the CEO to the marine mammal trainers, everyone contributes. Can you elaborate on this?
Meg Matthews: Shedd’s staff is the heart and soul of its sustainable practices; in fact, one of my roles is to build staff awareness and participation in green initiatives at the aquarium. Our staff sustainability learning programs have successfully produced a cadre of sustainability-savvy employees who contribute to some of the aquarium’s most successful green programs. From senior managers of animal care team that work to find sustainable diets for our collections, to frontline staff members who help visitors recycle their wristbands and maps, to exhibit fabricators who go the extra mile to recycle specialty waste, Shedd’s staff is the driving force behind our green accomplishments.
Jordan Schaul: Your green practices include the adoption of simple and subtle activities too heavy engineering and the use of innovative energy saving practices. Can you talk about some of these efforts.
Meg Matthews: Even better—I can show you some of them. Because a few of our energy practices are a bit technical, we summarized them in viewer-friendly ways as part of a partnership with the Illinois Environmental Council. All three talk about steps that Shedd takes to conserve energy through actions that we take around the aquarium’s food, water, and electricity. These videos play before our aquatic shows, introducing more than 2 million guests each year to sustainability. Check them out!
Jordan Schaul: Are other aquariums doing similar things to promote sustainability? What might be some examples?
Meg Matthews: I hear about aquariums and zoos that are doing amazing work to make their own operations more sustainable all around the country. Shedd sits on the Green Scientific Advisory Group (SAG), an Association of Zoos and Aquariums group that provides recommendations, guidelines and networking opportunities for aquariums and zoos looking to take their next green step, whatever it may be. The Green SAG includes members from small and large aquariums and zoos around the country, and it’s a great place to go get inspired. Starting this September, the Green SAG will have a monthly column in AZA’s CONNECT magazine that features firsthand stories of different sustainability programs in place at aquariums and zoos from the Green SAG and beyond—if you’re an AZA member, look for that soon!