YOU HAVE TO squint and use your imagination to visualize the finished product, but a transformation is underway on Seattle’s central waterfront. Where the Alaskan Way Viaduct once loomed, a walkway connecting Pike Place Market to Puget Sound is taking shape. The outlines of parks, playgrounds, bike lanes and a broad pedestrian promenade are beginning to emerge. One pier already has been rebuilt to welcome the public, and another is in the works.

Seattle’s aquarium past, from frozen fish to Ivar’s tanks and Namu the orca

Civic leaders say Seattle hasn’t experienced such a profound makeover since 1962, when the World’s Fair reshaped public infrastructure and propelled the city into the future. When the work is completed in 2025, foot traffic along Elliott Bay is expected to triple.

“This landscape that was dominated by a big, honking, gray, rumbling freeway will now be a massive public park for the people,” says Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose district includes the waterfront.

At the center of it all will be the Seattle Aquarium’s new Ocean Pavilion: a 50,000-square-foot exhibit space featuring sharks, rays and other animals and ecosystems from the tropical Pacific. Integrated with the city’s elevated walkway, the structure’s roof will be a public plaza with unimpeded views of the sunset and Mount Rainier. At ground level, a circular port called an oculus will allow passersby to peer into a 325,000-gallon coral canyon teeming with thousands of fish and invertebrates.

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Projected to be done in mid-2024, the expansion is Seattle Aquarium’s most ambitious and costly undertaking since it opened 45 years ago in a wooden building at Pier 59. It’s a natural fit to anchor the waterfront redevelopment, Lewis says. The aquarium is already hugely popular, he points out, and the new building will enhance its ability to attract and educate new generations of visitors.

Critics argue it’s the wrong approach — veering away from Seattle Aquarium’s historic emphasis on Northwest marine life and going big at a time when it’s crucial to rein in energy use and carbon emissions. But the institution’s leadership says it intends to make the aquarium the country’s greenest, with a net positive energy and environmental impact. That includes working toward partial Living Building certification — among the world’s highest standards — for the Ocean Pavilion.

The new exhibits will focus on a vulnerable portion of the Indonesian South Pacific called the Coral Triangle as a way to underscore the common threats — such as ocean acidification, pollution and species loss — facing people and marine environments around the globe, says Erin Meyer, who directs the aquarium’s conservation programs.

“We realized that to effect the change we’re trying to effect for our planet, we needed to … bring in ecosystems from the other side of the world, so we have a platform to tell global stories about what’s impacting the ocean and what communities are doing about it.”

But there’s no denying big fish with sharp teeth also are a draw. “The most-asked question in the history of the aquarium is: ‘Where are the sharks?’ ” says Bob Davidson, the aquarium’s president and CEO.

OWNED BY THE city of Seattle and operated by the nonprofit Seattle Aquarium Society, the aquarium is one of the city’s premier attractions, with 850,000 visitors a year. That’s more than attend Seattle Seahawks or Sounders games. The expansion is expected to boost annual visitation to 1.2 million.

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The $160 million price tag will be split equally between public funding and private donations. About two-thirds of the money is in hand, with more than $50 million yet to be raised. The city put up $34 million. Another $18.6 million is coming from the state, King County and the Port of Seattle. After philanthropic spending dried up during the pandemic and the costs of materials soared, the Aquarium Society in August sought — and received — a $20 million loan from Seattle to avoid construction delays that could have slowed the entire waterfront renovation.

Donations are picking up again, and fundraising is on target, says Susan Bullerdick, the aquarium’s director of capital projects. At the construction site, workers spent much of the summer installing the dense latticework of rebar necessary to support the weight of the tanks and the rooftop plaza. Concrete pours planned for October will entomb their handiwork.

Future inhabitants of the Ocean Pavilion also are starting to arrive. They’re being housed at a Sodo warehouse converted into a quarantine and animal care center. In late September, the 18,000-square-foot space was sparsely populated with three rays, a cluster of silvery goatfish and multiple tanks of coral. Expected soon are small mangrove trees, which will be grown under special lights for a tropical swamp exhibit.

All but one of the 26 sharks and rays will come from breeding programs at other aquariums, says the aquarium’s life sciences director, Grant Abel. A bowmouth guitarfish, along with about a quarter of the reef fishes, will be purchased from reputable dealers with permits to capture from the wild.

THE REALIZATION THAT aquariums need to minimize their own energy consumption, CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts is relatively new, says Davidson. In the aquarium’s early decades, collecting from the wild was routine, and clean hydropower seemed limitless. “There was a sense that there was an endless supply of animals, and that the ocean was endlessly healthy.”

With pumps and heaters that must run continuously, Seattle Aquarium is among the city’s more energy-intensive commercial complexes. The new Ocean Pavilion will increase its physical footprint by about 40% and boost its carbon footprint by nearly a third.

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That seems like the wrong direction for such an environmentally conscious city, says Chris Rogers, who was project manager for Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park and the Bullitt Center, one of the world’s greenest commercial buildings. Rogers initially worked on the Seattle Aquarium expansion, but he and the organization parted ways over differing visions.

“The more I learned about it, the more it seemed to be less about ocean conservation and more about creating an attraction for tourists,” he says. “And the way to do that is sexy sharks.”

Rogers was among nearly 100 local leaders and residents who signed a 2020 letter asking the aquarium board to back away from a big, energy-hungry shark tank and consider smaller-scale and virtual exhibits focused on protecting orcas, restoring salmon and other local environmental challenges.

“There are so many other things that could be done for a lot less money and without putting animals in captivity for entertainment,” Rogers says.

PLANS FOR THE Ocean Pavilion have changed significantly since the project’s early days, officials say, with upgrades such as recirculating saltwater, rather than constantly pumping and discharging to Elliott Bay.

The aquarium already more than offsets most of its direct and indirect CO2 emissions through carbon credits from a biodiversity reserve in Indonesia that protects peat swamps. The cost for the last two years was $17,500. The aquarium also plans to more than cover the carbon costs of building the Ocean Pavilion, as well as its emissions.

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“You can do no harm, or you can give back,” Meyer says. “To fight back against climate change, doing no harm isn’t good enough.”

The goal is to become the world’s first “regenerative” aquarium — one that gives back more than it takes from the environment — by 2030. Milestones include reducing seawater usage by 25% and getting to “zero waste” — meaning that virtually all refuse leaving the facility is reused, recycled or composted.

To earn the Living Building program’s zero energy certification, facilities usually are required to generate all power on-site, from solar panels, for example. That’s not possible for the all-electric Ocean Pavilion, because there’s a park on the roof. So the aquarium will support development of new solar energy off-site.

Samantha Muka, a historian of marine science at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, says Seattle’s plan goes beyond what she’s seen from other aquariums. It even addresses things that often are neglected, such as ensuring the gift shop isn’t full of plastic items from factories where workers are mistreated, and that seafood sold in the cafeteria and fed to the aquarium’s animals is sustainably sourced.

“They are really on the forefront of talking about issues that zoos and aquariums have struggled with in the last 20 years,” Muka says.

But Jabe Blumenthal, a climate activist and former Microsoft executive who helped enlist Bill Gates in the battle against global warming, cautions that details matter, especially when it comes to carbon offsets. Even those with third-party certification are sometimes double-counted or vanish when governments change, and so-called permanent reserves are plowed under.

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Becoming “regenerative” is a worthy goal, but it’s not well-defined, Blumenthal adds. While the aquarium has listed some targets, it has yet to release a detailed plan with firm commitments — something officials say is in the works.

“Uncharitably, ‘regenerative’ is a form of greenwashing if you can’t meet hard-and-fast emissions goals,” Blumenthal says. “Charitably, it’s exactly what they should be doing.”

A FEW WEEKS after approval of the $20 million aquarium loan, a small group from the Northwest Animal Rights Network gathered in front of Seattle City Hall with 6-foot-long inflatable sharks crammed into a mock aquarium. They protested the diversion of public money to “frivolous entertainment,” argued that it’s inhumane to keep wide-ranging sharks and rays in tanks, and challenged the bedrock assumption of modern zoos and aquariums: that the opportunity to see and learn about captive animals and their environments fosters a connection to the natural world — and spurs public support for conservation.

While that assumption might seem intuitively reasonable, “The evidence supporting this link is mixed and hotly contested,” says the introduction to “The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation,” a 2018 collection of essays by historians, biologists, and leading zoo and aquarium scientists. The book also refers to the “disappointing lack of strong empirical evidence of a relation between education and conservation actions.”

It’s incredibly difficult to measure the way zoos and aquariums affect visitors’ behavior, says Jan Packer, an educational psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “We’ve tried various ways in our research to get a handle on how to measure the impact, and it seems every different way we phrase the question, we get a different answer,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve actually cracked it yet in terms of finding a way … to get an accurate response.”

After zoo or aquarium visits, many people report increased knowledge of ecological issues and say they intend to take steps to benefit the environment — but the question is whether that translates into action. In one of Packer’s early studies, aquarium visitors seemed deeply affected by a sea turtle scarred by boat propellers, and many vowed to slow down their own boat speeds. But a recent study by another Australian group found little inclination to modify their own lives among nearly 500 people who visited exhibits featuring imperiled sawfish — even though most said they learned a lot and came away with a positive attitude toward conservation.

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The most effective exhibits seem to be those that create an emotional connection between animals and visitors and underscore humans’ impact on the natural world, Packer says. Which is why Seattle Aquarium staff say virtual exhibits, while an important addition, aren’t a substitute for live animals.

Seattle’s Ocean Pavilion will include a virtual exhibit hall where images of large species such as orcas will be projected, along with maps that will allow real-time tracking of data, like the number of active forest fires. Another exhibit, in collaboration with the Port of Seattle, will focus on underwater noise and its impact on marine life.

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, opened its Pacific Visions gallery in 2019, featuring largely multimedia and virtual, interactive exhibits focused on humanity’s impact on the planet. They’ve found it’s also important to include some live animals in the mix, says Pacific Visions director Fahria Qader.

“Tanks are always the main attraction for the aquarium,” she says. “But interactives can add in layers of information you wouldn’t have been able to provide with tanks alone.”

ZOOS AND AQUARIUMS increasingly brand themselves as conservation organizations based largely on their educational role. Seattle Aquarium’s stated mission is “inspiring conservation of our marine environment.” But with a few notable exceptions — including recovery of American bison, California condors and black-footed ferrets — zoological parks haven’t been major players in protecting and propping up wild populations until very recently, according to “The Ark and Beyond.” Most devote only a tiny fraction of their budgets to species recovery.

“Wildlife conservation is core to the mission of every zoological facility, and each one needs to ‘walk the talk,’ or close its gates,” writes Rick Barongi, former director of the Houston Zoo.

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Aquariums in particular have lagged, says Meyer, who’s working to change that. In 2020, she helped launch an international consortium called ReShark to bolster imperiled elasmobranch populations with aquarium-bred animals. Their first species is the endangered zebra shark, also called the Indo-Pacific leopard shark. With two females and a male in the Ocean Pavilion, Seattle Aquarium will be part of a breeding program that delivers eggs to Indonesia, where hatchlings will be reared and released into the wild.

Meyer and her team also joined local organizations working to restore critically endangered pinto abalone in Puget Sound. The first batch of larvae reared at the aquarium was released earlier this year.

The two programs are the aquarium’s first serious species recovery efforts and accounted for about 1.2% of the aquarium’s nearly $50 million total operating budget over the past three years. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends at least 3% for hands-on conservation, while a separate analysis that asks whether institutions “put their money where their mouths are” suggests 25% as the benchmark.

Seattle Aquarium is involved in several other environmental initiatives, including otter and kelp surveys and research on plastics pollution. It has also increased its advocacy role, pushing for legislation such as the state’s new plan to reduce plastic waste.

“Can aquariums do more for conservation?” Muka asks. “Certainly.” Many across the country, like Seattle, are working to strengthen their conservation roles, she points out. “I think they’re going in the right direction.”

Discussions about Seattle Aquarium’s future are likely to be on the public agenda for years to come.

The Ocean Pavilion is only the first of a proposed three-phase renovation and expansion. Early plans envision a glass facade on the west end of Pier 59, the aquarium’s original location, with waterfront dining and sweeping views. Also on the aquarium’s wish-list: expansion of Pier 60, which currently houses seals and sea otters, to add ecosystem exhibits on Puget Sound and Washington’s outer coast.