Earlier this month, the Seattle City Council approved $34 million to help fund the Seattle Aquarium’s proposed inshore Ocean Pavilion with its 325,000-gallon shark tank. This project is wrong for Seattle and for the Aquarium in so many ways.
Thirty-five percent of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its buildings. It is these emissions and other sources of carbon dioxide that are contributing to ocean acidification. Our ocean, a natural sink for carbon, no longer has the capacity to absorb all of the CO2 we are producing. Given all that we know, we must consider the climate impact of buildings not yet built, especially those funded with city dollars. And this is particularly true for the Aquarium, with its mission of conservation.
A useful lens is the Office of Sustainability and Environment’s Energy Benchmarking that tracks energy use in nonresidential buildings. The existing aquarium has an Energy Use Index (similar to mpg ratings in cars) of 235.6, significantly higher than the median of 79 for all other commercial buildings in the city, and 186% higher than similar buildings being measured. This Aquarium number is literally off the charts and likely to become much worse as the new project is built. The new building anticipates the daily pumping of seawater from Elliott Bay, heating it to tropical temperatures, filtering and cooling it again before discharging it back into Puget Sound.
A revealing contrast is a recent expansion project at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, which ditched the outdated energy-consuming big-tank idea and built “the aquarium of the future,” which includes an immersive theater, multimedia displays and live animal exhibit. The idea was to create space where the focus is on the “one species that is affecting all others on Earth: humans …. a place where scientists, policymakers and the public can come together to explore solutions to create a better future for all.”
Imagine a different approach in Seattle that focused on real marine conservation, where it is urgently needed to save our local orca population from extinction. It is easy to think of other applications for the $34 million the city just approved. One example would be to allocate the funds to shoreline enhancements from Myrtle Edwards Park to Interbay, expanding the Olympic Sculpture Park beach 15-fold. Another option would be funding the Puget Sound Partnership’s prioritized list of “shovel ready” acquisition and restoration projects that are key to the recovery of chinook salmon. In the 2019-2021 state capital budget, only three out of the 11 ranked projects received funding; another $35 million would have funded them all.
Or what if the Seattle Aquarium focused its power and influence on the restoration of city-owned property in the Duwamish River as a different kind of “expansion” project? That would be a twofer, simultaneously addressing longstanding public-health concerns for the people that live there.
One of the Aquarium’s stated goals of the Ocean Pavilion, which incongruously focuses on marine life in the far South Pacific, is to establish a connection for visitors to the one ocean concept. It hopes to make the case that our actions in Puget Sound impact communities and creatures across the globe. Hence the huge tank to hold sharks and rays. But, if the Seattle Aquarium has wisely never had orca in captivity, why start with sharks?
We’ve gone down this wrong road before. In 1965, Ted Griffin raised money from waterfront businesses to bring a captive orca to the Seattle waterfront. We now know what a mistake that was, not to be repeated.
A shark tank for today’s Seattle Aquarium may similarly be good for waterfront hotels and restaurants, but it is antithetical to the responsible green city we profess to be. The recent public protest over elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo should be reason enough for a pivot.
Let’s do marine conservation right, Seattle. Time is running out.