Turf to Surf

Julie Packard’s Connected Vision for California Conservation

By David Bryant | Photos courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Altough she’s best known for her work as co-founder and executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), Julie Packard’s love of the natural world began with California native plants. Growing up in the foothills of Santa Clara Valley, with frequent trips to the Sierra Nevada, left an indelible mark on Packard, who later waded into tide pools in an intertidal biology class at UC Santa Cruz. At first glance, it’s easy to see California’s terrestrial landscapes and the Pacific Ocean as two different worlds. But as Packard explains in this interview with Flora, the line between them is constantly moving and often blurred. To Packard, there is hardly a difference at all, and therein lies an inspiring message of life’s interconnectedness.

Julie Packard
Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium

D: Most people know you as the CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a world-class institution with a mission to inspire conservation of the ocean. Perhaps not everyone knows your background as a marine biologist with a specialization in algal ecology. Can you talk about what drew you to this branch of science?

J: I grew up in a family that valued science big time, my father being an engineer. We lived in the foothills of the Santa Clara Valley before it was called Silicon Valley and spent a lot of time outdoors.

I went to UC Santa Cruz in 1970, and in my first year of college the Santa Barbara oil spill happened. I was immersed in the blossoming of the environmental movement and along with it, the big environmental legislative moves that the federal government made in the early ‘70s. I was drawn [to UC Santa Cruz] because it was one of the first universities to have an environmental studies focus. I majored in biology and took all the botany classes I could find, including an intertidal biology field class. The class was divided into two teams, one assigned to the invertebrates and the other team assigned to the algae, and that’s how I first got introduced to tide pools. I ended up working for my professor and his lab for many years on survey work of the coastline north of Santa Cruz that Sea Grant funded. Part of that work was looking at the species and biomass composition of intertidal red algae for potential commercial use. A lot of pressed algae in the collection has my name on it!

But plants were always my first love. I can’t say why, they’re just remarkable. Photosynthesis is a magical thing. I have always been fascinated with the beauty of plants and the fact that all life depends on them.

D: How do you think about the relationship between terrestrial plants and aquatic environments like kelp forests? I’d also love to hear how you describe the scientific differences between kelp (“seaweed”) and plants.

J: I didn’t really spend much time with the ocean until college. Our family went to the Sierra in the summer—that’s still my first love—and there’s no marine algae to be found in the Sierra. I view the coastal ecosystems as just another part of California’s amazing biodiversity and our natural heritage. More and more we understand the connection between them, starting with simple things like salmon which are such an important part of the ecosystem both on land and in the sea. We still have gaps in our understanding of the life cycle of salmon—certainly the ocean-going part. We understand more about the terrestrial piece, and our impacts from diverting water, land development, and logging.

When we started working on the aquarium and thinking about designing the kelp forest exhibit, we talked about the similarities between a redwood forest and a kelp forest. I find it intellectually fascinating to think about the similarities and differences [between the two systems]. You’ve got these organisms photosynthesizing and showing adaptations to enable them to do the same physiological processes, but in completely different environments. And then you have the rich ecosystems built around the redwood trees and kelp, up to the keystone predators like sea otters. The birds [in  a redwood forest] are akin to fishes swimming around in the canopy of the kelp forest, and many invertebrates take advantage of the understory in both habitats.

But your question is interesting. I don’t have a philosophical answer, except to say that the ocean is a hidden, but equally—if not more—amazing piece of California nature.

A leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata) swimming in the Kelp Forest exhibit.

D: From the minute a person walks through the doors of the MBA, the first thing you notice is habitatthat magnificent kelp forest exhibit. Can you talk about your thought process in creating it, and why the conservation of any living creatures must start with habitat?

J: The founding group of the aquarium were colleagues who had all been involved with teaching or research at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, which has a long history of marine biology. As such, we were huge fans and students of Ed Ricketts’ Between Pacific Tides. Your readers are probably familiar with the fictional “Doc” in John Steinbeck’s stories [Steinbeck, who was a friend of Ricketts’, modeled several of the characters after him in his novels] but of  course Ed Ricketts was a real person and one of his major contributions was on marine ecological communities. That was a foundational piece of our educational experience as biologists, giving us an ecological frame for things. When we thought about Monterey Bay,  we thought about it in terms of habitat—the interrelationships and communities of life— and we wanted to present things in that way.

One of our issues with other aquariums was that they were just collections of exotic species. Zoos and aquariums began as menageries, with collections of animals from all over the world. We went around to all the other aquariums and there weren’t natural assemblages of animals, and they weren’t in context. They weren’t in a habitat; they were just in a tank.  So we said from the start, [our aquarium] was a habitat tour, and it was going to be all about Monterey Bay.

We had this notion to go deep in one place—the Bay. And we’ve never run out of stories to tell. We’ve expanded the aquarium and have special exhibitions that take you beyond the Bay and talk about different issues in different places, but the main experience is about a deep dive into one area. It’s endlessly fascinating and there are endless unanswered questions.

D: The focus on habitat is something CNPS and MBA share. As we face sea level rise, for example, CNPS is actively focused on conserving habitat for coastal plants. What are MBA’s priorities regarding habitat conservation, and where do you see our efforts intersecting?

J: Since our mission is to inspire conservation of the ocean, one has to start by looking at the causes of the decline in ocean health and what we can do to reverse them. The biggest threat is global climate change, which is the same for all nature, including terrestrial plants. So for sure that is a point in common [between CNPS and MBA]. That being said, the principal and immediate threat we’ve chosen as our biggest focus for conservation work is to move to a future with sustainable seafood.

…the most challenging species in the aquarium is not in the tanks, it’s on the dry side, and it’s us.

The world’s fisheries are massively overfished. Our main program at the aquarium to work on that issue has been Seafood Watch, a program that began with the aim of fostering consumer awareness and inspiring consumers to create market demand for sustainable seafood. This gets businesses to respond to that market demand. We’ve started with retailers and today, 85 percent of the big retailers in the US have made a time-bound commitment to source only sustainable seafood. We’re talking about the Costcos, the Walmarts, the Safeways—the big players, they’ve all made a commitment.

Now, we’re at the phase of asking “Where does all that sustainable seafood come from?” For example, we’re doing a big and exciting project in Vietnam on shrimp aquaculture. Forty percent of the shrimp that we eat in the US is from Vietnam. We love our shrimp—it’s in the top three US seafood import products. And the US is the third biggest importer of seafood in the global market. If we could use our consumer power to demand that restaurants and retailers buy sustainable products, it can really make a difference.

D: MBA is a world leader in conservation advocacy and conservation action. What lessons have you learned about inspiring the public and cultivating a conservation mindset?

J: Changing attitudes and behavior in the human species is the biggest challenge. Whether we’re trying to eat healthier, or use less fossil fuel, or whatever other issue. I always like to say, in designing the aquarium, we thought the hardest, most challenging part was behind the glass—you know, how can we keep the tuna alive? How are we going to grow the seaweed? Once we opened, I realized quickly that the most challenging species in the aquarium is not in the tanks, it’s on the dry side, and it’s us.

What we’ve learned is that it really starts with falling in love with the ocean. So many people don’t have any experience with it, and it’s trite to say, but you’re not going to value something that you don’t know and love. It’s really about providing inspiring and emotional experiences. We began as a bunch of scientists thinking, “Oh, if we just tell them all these important facts, they might care.” Since you’re an interpreter, you know—that is not how it works. So we try to create emotional connections and maximize those inspiring “get you in the heart, not the head” experiences as much as we can.

When we did our second big jellies special exhibition, we asked the public, “What do you want to know about jellies?” And they pretty much said, “Nothing. They’re just beautiful.” And that’s when our design team said, “Okay, we’re going to create an exhibit called Jellies: Living Art and we’re going to show the jellies like they were hung in a gallery.” That was the genesis of that exhibit, which I just loved. It was really fabulous. We want to get people to fall in love with the ocean, to have a relatable experience, whatever it might be, whether they think it’s beautiful, or they think an animal is endearing and cute. Whatever it takes to get them to care and have empathy and relate and value it.

D: Those jellyfish exhibits are indeed showstoppers. Once you’ve built those connections for people, how does MBA translate caring into action?

J: We’ve developed a reputation of being a trusted source of information. Audiences want us to tell them what to do. They’re saying ‘“We really care. We’re really concerned. What can we do?” And of course, they want to do a simple action. They don’t want to do something really hard. That’s why Seafood Watch is such a popular program.  We’re saying, “You love to eat, we’re not telling you to stop doing something. You love seafood, so do we. If you love seafood, pick these seafood species right now.” Studies show people are willing to make a minor change in their personal habits. This is why there’s a lot of public interest in plastic pollution. It’s not the biggest threat to the ocean in my book by any means, but it really engages the public, because we’re all part of the problem, whether it’s the landfills or it’s ocean plastic pollution.

D: Climate change presents serious threats to all of California’s ecosystems. How is MBA addressing that?

J: Our scientific knowledge continues to build on how these habitats and ecosystems work, and as the anthropogenic perturbations accelerate, it’s a moving target. Just as for the terrestrial places and ecosystems that CNPS is trying to protect, climate change is changing the paradigm—for blue oak woodlands for instance, we’ve discovered their range will need to migrate.

When we had those horrible fires this summer, our chief scientist put some glassware up on the roof to collect the ash to see if it’s toxic to the ocean environment. The ashfall from these recent fires was so large that it might be having an effect on our ocean; it’s just one more effect from climate change on our ecosystems that you never even think of. Everything is so connected, and that’s why more and more as time goes on, we have to be even more thoughtful, realizing that every impact that we have is going to have impacts that we don’t understand.

The thing that’s exciting about California, that relates to the CNPS audience, is California’s role as a leader in environmental policy. California is a national leader in climate policy,  and we’ve been a national leader in ocean protection policy.  We have the nation’s first network of fully protected marine areas that run our entire coastline and are totally designed around the ecology of habitats. It’s an amazing point of leverage.

A close up of the fronds and pneumatocysts of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) in the Kelp Forest exhibit

D: What advice do you have for the next generation of scientists and conservationists? How do you sustain your own energy and commitment in the face of what can seem at times like overwhelming odds?

J: Living systems, including the ocean, are resilient. They can recover—if we give them the opportunity and do the right thing. This century must be the one in which we’ll reverse the destructive trends that have strained Earth’s life support system. Actually, we’ve already begun. We have examples all around us where negative trends are reversing as people take action for change.

Our collective action—whatever we decide to do—will shape the future for humanity. We all need to be part of the solution. Scientists can provide the knowledge we need to make informed policy decisions. Educators can help build a next generation that’s science literate and equipped to understand the environmental decisions ahead. Folks in business can commit to embracing sustainable practices. In a world where business interests increasingly call the shots in the global policy arena, this is the biggest untapped driver of change, as I’ve seen through our Seafood Watch program.

The most important thing is for each of us to get involved and act on our convictions. We have the power for change. We must use it

David Bryant is the Campaigns and Engagement Manager for CNPS.


  1. In the Turf to Surf article there was this statement:

    “When we had those horrible fires this summer, our chief scientist put some glassware up on the roof to collect the ash to see if it’s toxic to the ocean environment.”

    So what was the result ? Toxic ashfall or not so toxic?

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