7 June 2017

Opinion: Warning signs for our natural world

Vancouver Sun

John G. McAvity

It’s Ocean Awareness Week and yet there are storm clouds hanging over these waters.

The Paris Accord isn’t the only thing Donald Trump wants out of. He has also proposed eliminating federal funding for climate change, related research and even to museums. These are unprecedented steps to ignore humanitarian and global issues. They’re short-sighted and will endanger the world as we know life on Earth.

Today, our aquariums, museums and zoos have changed dramatically. Some, like Trump, believe these non-profit institutions are irrelevant. The reality is they’re addressing the very issues he isn’t interested in.

Most zoos and aquariums left the entertainment industry long ago. Times have changed and so have these institutions. They no longer train animals in cruel and unusual ways to bark, jump or flip.

This change was overdue and they have returned to their actual raison d’etre as centres of research, conservation and education, not entertainment. The old model was out of date, inappropriate and frankly superseded by incredible nature photography that didn’t exist 40 years ago.

Today, these institutions are transforming people’s expectations in new ways as destinations for discussion, connection and exploration with nature’s past, present and future. They permit and encourage a discussion that advances understanding and better care of our natural world.

They’re squarely in the conservation business, doing incredible research on the life and the threats that species face. For example, look at:

• The Oceans Revival work by the Vancouver Aquarium;

• The arctic research done by the Canadian Museum of Nature and its new Beaty Institute;

• The ecoblitz projects and research by the New Brunswick Museum or;

• The research, monitoring and impact assessments by the Huntsman Marine Science Centre.

These undertakings provoke us to appreciate and think about our environment and how each of us can act responsibly as citizens. They collaborate on projects and exchange information through various networks, from academia and scientific, to the newly launched Coalition for Climate Change Justice, which my association is a supporter of.

At a recent meeting of the coalition, I was amazed at the number of projects that museums, art galleries, and not just natural-science institutions, are undertaking across Canada to address the concerns of climate change.  
An impressive number, including the Huntsman, hold ocean-awareness art programs for students, thus instilling the message to young people. Beach cleanups have been regular features for years. Artists have created works based on debris that washed up after a tsunami.

Our natural ecology feeds and informs our human ecology, from traditional indigenous practices to newer ones such as commercial fish-farming.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, now in its 12th year, works with restaurants and suppliers to identify sustainable consumer choices. There are now over 650 partners across Canada, which display the Ocean Wise logo on their menus, thus assuring consumers are aware of safer choices to make when ordering seafood.

The aquarium has also been successful in convincing restaurants to remove species-at-risk. Look for their logo of assurance next time you dine on seafood.

The aquarium and other non-profit institutions play a vital research and preservation role to society and its future. They preserve endangered species, which is a sad fact that we have come down to. They do this role with care and professionalism.

The world that each of us grew up in, no matter whether 15 or 40 years ago, has changed greatly and the future can only be described as full of unpredictable change.

Climate change, water quality, air pollution and human intervention are factors to be faced by all of us, including the unpredictable denial of the president of the world’s most influential country.
 
As we mark the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, it’s time for each of us to appreciate our heritage, our global leadership in conservation, and take personal responsibility.

John G. McAvity has served as executive director and CEO of the Canadian Museums Association for 36 years, has been recognized with the Order of Canada and an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick.