Business & Tech

New England Aquarium CEO to step down

New England Aquarium chief executive Nigella Hillgarth is leaving the Boston institution after three years.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 2016
New England Aquarium chief executive Nigella Hillgarth is leaving the Boston institution after three years.

Less than three years after taking the top job at the New England Aquarium, Nigella Hillgarth said she is stepping down to return to her first love: field research.

Hillgarth’s announcement on Wednesday caught many in Boston’s tight-knit nonprofit and civic circles off guard, and comes at a delicate time for one of the city’s most popular destinations. Under her leadership, the aquarium has been battling a high-profile development next door, putting forth its own master plan for Central Wharf, and expanding its science and research agenda. Now it will continue to do all that, while also searching for a new chief executive.

Hillgarth will leave later this spring for a post teaching biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s a return to the West Coast, where the 63-year-old Irish-born, Oxford-educated scientist spent most of her professional life. And it’s a move, Hillgarth said, that will enable her return to field research after nearly two decades running zoological institutions.

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“I’ve been feeling more and more drawn to actually doing research again. That’s the heart of where I come from,” Hillgarth said. “And quite frankly I’m not getting any younger. I want to do it while I still have the strength and agility to get out there.”

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While Hillgarth said she has been mulling the move for some time, she only told aquarium board of trustees chair Donna Hazard over the weekend. They spent a couple of days working on transition plans before going public.

It came as a surprise to many. Hillgarth and the aquarium have emerged as increasingly influential players in the world of waterfront development, becoming a thorn in the side of developer Don Chiofaro and his plan to put a skyscraper on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage next door.

Hillgarth sits on an advisory board that’s helping to write zoning rules for the area and has at times been a sharp critic of Chiofaro’s project. In a November letter to city officials, she wrote that redeveloping the garage could pose an “existential threat” to her institution if not done carefully. Meanwhile she helped craft an ambitious master plan for the aquarium that would include a larger main building, a new Imax theater, and 1,000-foot “Blueway” connecting the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the harbor along Central Wharf.

For the lifelong scientist, the view into the nitty-gritty of Boston development was eye-opening.

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“Many people in my position don’t really get to see the inner workings of how planning works in a city like this,” Hillgarth said. “It’s been exciting to have even a small role in developing the future of Boston.”

Those who’ve watched the process, and negotiated with her, said Hillgarth’s smarts and her direct approach will be missed.

“I liked her a lot,” Chiofaro said. “I always told her I hope you and I can become really good friends and really create something special down here [on the waterfront].”

The aquarium has no plans to change course, Hazard said. Other senior leadership will stay in place and the board will launch a “national if not international” search for a new CEO. Then they’ll execute on the vision Hillgarth helped to develop, both for their facilities and their research programs.

“She has done amazing things for the aquarium,” Hazard said. “Our biggest objective was to set a new foundation that builds on our history and develops a more sustainable financial model. She led a process that did exactly that and I will be forever grateful.”

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Hillgarth came to Boston — a city she’d never visited before interviewing for the aquarium job — in 2014, after 12 years running Birch Aquarium in San Diego. In her time here, the aquarium had strong attendance — 1.4 million visitors last year, a spokesman said — and grew its annual revenue to more than $44 million. It also took a more active role in advocacy and last year launched the new Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, which blends the aquarium’s research and conservation arms to improve understanding of how issues such as climate change, acidification, and overfishing are affecting oceans.

It was that work on the Anderson Cabot Center that reignited her passion for research, said Hillgarth, reminding her of the sort of field research she did before she agreed to run a scandal-plagued bird park in Utah back in 1998.

And while her decision to leave a job leading one of the nation’s most popular aquariums came as a surprise to many, Hazard said she often saw little signs that Hillgarth would rather be away from the office and out where the animals are.

“There was always this sparkle in her eye when she’d talk about fieldwork. She’d get so animated about it,” Hazard said. “So when she shared this plan with me, it made sense.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.