The National Aquarium of Ireland houses more than 60 exhibits designed for children and adults to explore the secrets of the sea. Also quite impressive is that the Atlantaquaria in Galway led a global initiative to partner with aquariums in the fight against ocean plastic.
The European Union (EU) announced two years ago that it hoped to register aquariums across Europe and the world to boost public education about plastic and how it threatens marine life. Ireland agreed, quickly followed by Malta and its National Aquarium.
Dozens followed, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, together with the EU Environment, announced last Wednesday that they have exceeded their target with some 202 aquariums in 41 countries now integrating plastics education into programs and exhibits, while reducing the use of plastic. The news came alongside the conference two days ago, “Our Ocean,” held in Oslo, Norway, where participants celebrated more than € 100 million in new commitments to Europe's blue economy.
Aquariums provide a window into an underwater world that is familiar to scientists and researchers, perhaps some recreational divers, but rarely seen by others. They are ideal for raising awareness of the threats of plastic pollution, especially for children, and that is exactly what Belgian marine biologist Gilles Doignon thought as he recalled his own enthusiasm for aquariums.
So Doignon, who works with the EU Fisheries and Maritime Affairs agency, took to social media to start building a network of international aquariums, and they responded in a big way. "We are delighted that our call has motivated so many institutions, from very local to iconic, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, Nausicaá in France, Oceanário in Portugal and the 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 River Rhine near Düsseldorf, even set up a tank display with single-use plastic litter hidden among the rocks and underwater plants as the colorful fish glide by. Probably the most talked about was the exhibit created at the Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium, again in Ireland, which collaborated with Greenpeace and the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather 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 only saw plastic.
In Slovenia, the aquarium staff designed a wavy sculpture made from plastic bottles. In Spain, there is a mermaid themed video that is used to raise awareness. A French aquarium works with local fishermen to recycle the plastic caught in their nets. Everything is designed to underline the message that plastics can be catastrophic for marine life and inspire aquarium visitors to reduce plastic use and advocate for change.
"As a consumer, every action you take can make a difference," says Doignon. “There is a fundamental need for a change in our behavior: do I really need this plastic or straw lid on my coffee to go? Every time you drink from the tap instead of buying bottled water means one less bottle. There are alternatives, but the main challenge is to get rid of the disposable mentality.