Most people know the New England Aquarium as a place to watch seals swim and penguins frolic, or for its marine research or famous sea turtle rescues. Now, the threats posed by climate change have prompted the nonprofit to dive headfirst into an entirely different body of water: the Massachusetts State House.
Aquarium officials and allies in the Legislature plan to hold a press conference on Thursday to discuss their upcoming legislative agenda, the organization’s first concerted effort to pursue a slate of bills on Beacon Hill. The list includes ones that would create programs to stoke the state’s marine economy, encourage people to keep materials such as plastics in circulation for as long as possible before they get thrown out, and use wetlands to help the state reach its net-zero carbon emissions goals.
Most notably among these is a bill that would expedite state permitting for climate resiliency projects built on public lands, with municipal governments taking the initiative or at least giving approval.
“This is our first venture into state policy, and first time filing bills at the state level,” Aquarium lobbyist James Sutherland said. “It all started back in the pandemic, when the Aquarium was actually closed for 26 weeks. We took that as an opportunity to reset and think about our priorities and our impact, and how we want to engage globally but also locally.”
Chief executive Vikki Spruill hinted this change might be coming when she started in the job in mid-2019, after spending two decades doing environmental advocacy work in Washington. At the time, she said she wanted to see the Aquarium play a more active and forceful role in local policy issues. For the most part, its local lobbying to that point had been primarily focused on the proposed redevelopment of the neighboring Boston Harbor Garage, whose future is inextricably linked with the Aquarium’s.
The Aquarium hired Sutherland from the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in 2021 for a newly-created job as associate vice president of public policy and advocacy. Sutherland said he tried to consider bills that could strike the right balance between encouraging conservation and industry as well as those that could help address the threats posed to the state’s coastline by climate change. He said it was not difficult finding legislative sponsors.
“My thinking going into this: Economic development and conservation do not have to be mutually exclusive,” Sutherland said. “When you pair those two things — economic development and conservation — people love that combination.”
One bill in particular could help with that, assuming the aquarium and its boosters can line up funding. That bill would create three separate grant programs: one to support marine research organizations in the state (such as the Aquarium), one to fund job training and placements for careers in marine-related industries, and one that would help businesses adopt more environmentally sustainable practices including the reuse of materials. The bill doesn’t provide a set dollar figure for these programs or actual funding for them; that would likely need to come through the state budget process, or through federal grants.
Senator Susan Moran, that bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, said the Aquarium’s growing role in State House lobbying is indicative of the high stakes raised by the climate emergency.
“It’s always been a part of their mission to not only be good stewards but really be emblematic and show folks what it looks like to be good stewards,” said Moran, who lives in Falmouth. “The fact they are really partnering with the Legislature in that effort shows a [strong] response to the climate emergency that’s happening right now. I’m really happy to be a part of that.”
Senator Brendan Crighton, who co-sponsored the bill to expedite permitting for resiliency projects, said he’s excited to see the Aquarium get more involved with public policy. He expects the legislation could be fine-tuned as the sponsors receive feedback, but it’s hard to argue with the ultimate goal: helping cities and towns fortify their shorelines against storms and rising seas.
“Climate resiliency is on all of our minds, but particularly for those of us who represent communities along the coast,” said Crighton, of Lynn. “We’re looking to expedite the process. Certainly time isn’t on our side.”