Perched on the harbor’s edge, the New England Aquarium offers a front-row view of climate change, and the damage it can cause.
The popular tourism attraction missed out on nearly $1 million in revenue last year when it had to close for four days after flooding turned it into an island. Those memories are still fresh as its executives begin the search for a firm to conduct a climate vulnerability assessment of the waterfront campus, the first stage in an ambitious expansion planned for several phases over the next 10 years.
But chief executive Vikki Spruill isn’t looking to batten down the hatches. Instead, she wants to throw open the doors.
Spruill, who completes her first year as CEO this month, wants the aquarium to become a bold advocate on environmental matters, particularly with regard to how people should react to a warming planet. The $200 million expansion will be just one manifestation of this broader mission. The outdoor aspects of the project will feature exhibits aimed at educating visitors, and practical resiliency measures designed to protect the aquarium.
Spruill says the aquarium can’t stay silent as the pace of global warming transforms oceans. She calls climate change the “defining issue of our time.” Will the rest of Boston agree with her?
The aquarium board wanted someone who could shake things up a bit when it hired Spruill last year. Tom Burton, who led the search committee, says board members believe the nonprofit needs to forcefully advocate for conservation measures, and educate the public about what they can do.
Spruill started her career in public relations, but has spent the past two decades doing advocacy work in Washington, D.C., holding top leadership roles at the Ocean Conservancy and the Council on Foundations. Soon after she joined the aquarium, she met with staff to focus the organization’s advocacy priorities on four main areas: climate change, overfishing, pollution, and the industrialization of the ocean.
Those advocacy efforts are still taking shape. The aquarium hired its first director of marine conservation policy, Kelly Kryc, last year, just before Spruill joined. It later led an effort with five other aquariums to oppose the Trump administration’s steps to enable seismic blasts for oil and gas exploration off the East Coast, and it offered support for proposed statewide limits on plastic bag use. Aquarium scientists this spring went to the State House to give informational briefings on whales and sharks for lawmakers. And Spruill recently teamed up with congressmen Seth Moulton and John Rutherford to pen a column about saving the North Atlantic right whale from extinction.
As a nonprofit, the aquarium can do a modest amount of lobbying before needing to register with Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office. Those records show ML Strategies is the only lobbying firm registered to represent the aquarium. ML’s aquarium work, however, involves waterfront development on and around Central Wharf, not state or federal policy changes.
Yes, the aquarium remains an important player in the ongoing saga that is the Boston Harbor Garage next door. Developer Don Chiofaro has long wanted to build a tower on the garage site. The latest holdup? Plans have stalled out as everyone waits for lawsuits from the nearby Harbor Towers and the Conservation Law Foundation to be resolved.
The aquarium’s leadership had initially hoped Chiofaro’s site could be part of the vision for a “Blueway,” the park that would enhance the wharf’s climate resiliency and draw more people to the water’s edge. Now, Spruill is instead working within the borders of the aquarium property, but will look to involve her neighbors at a later date.
Spruill appears far more worried about the planet’s future than the fate of the tower planned for her doorstep. To that end, she wants to put more pressure on policy makers at the state and federal level. And she wants to harness the collective energy of the 1.4 million people who visit the aquarium every year, to take measures that could help curb the damage caused by climate change.
As Spruill considers those looming threats, she might be thinking that missing a few days of ticket sales could be the least of her problems — and ours.