Ireland’s national aquarium is home to more than 60 exhibits designed for children and adults alike to explore the secrets of the sea. It’s also the home of a pretty impressive first, because the Atlantaquaria in Galway led the way on a global initiative to partner with aquariums in the fight against ocean plastic.
The European Union (EU) announced two years ago that it was hoping to sign up aquariums across Europe and the world to boost public education about plastic and how it threatens marine life. Ireland agreed, followed quickly by Malta and its National Aquarium.
Dozens followed, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums – alongside EU Environment – announced Wednesday that they’ve exceeded their goal with some 202 aquariums in 41 countries now integrating plastics education into programs and exhibits, while reducing plastic use themselves. The news came in conjunction with the two-day “Our Ocean” conference being held in Oslo, Norway, where participants celebrated more than €100 million in new commitments to Europe’s blue economy.
The aquariums provide a window into an undersea world that’s familiar to scientists and researchers, perhaps some recreational divers, but rarely seen by others. They are a natural fit for raising awareness about plastic pollution threats, especially for children, and that’s exactly what Belgian marine biologist Gilles Doignon thought of when remembering his own enthusiasm for aquariums.
So Doignon, who works with the EU’s Maritime Affairs & Fisheries agency, took to social media to begin building a network of international aquariums – and they answered in a big way. “We are delighted our call motivated so many institutions, from very local to iconic ones such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, Nausicaá in France, Oceanário in Portugal and Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town,” he said. “All aquariums with conservation and education programs are welcome!”
Some facilities including Germany’s Duisberg aquarium, along the Rhine River near Düsseldorf, even set up a tank display with single-use plastic trash tucked among the rocks and undersea plants as colorful fish glide by. Likely the most talked about was the display created at Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium, again in Ireland, which collaborated with Greenpeace and the Ogilvy & Mather ad agency to create last year’s award-winning “Ocean of the Future” video – and a sobering visit for students who came for sharks and starfish but saw only plastic.
In Slovenia, the aquarium staff designed a wave sculpture made from plastic bottles. In Spain, there’s a mermaid-themed video used to raise awareness. One French aquarium works with local fishers to recycle the plastic caught in their nets. It’s all designed to underscore the message that plastics can be catastrophic to marine life and inspire aquarium visitors to reduce plastic use and advocate for change.
“As a consumer, each action you take can make a difference,” says Doignon. “There is fundamental need for a shift in our behavior: do I really need this straw or plastic lid on my takeaway coffee? Each time you drink from the tap instead of buying bottled water means one bottle less. Alternatives exist, but the main challenge is getting rid of the throwaway mentality.”