Dear friend of the Seattle Aquarium,
Little did we know what was ahead of us as we set forth into 2020: 22 weeks of closure to the public in total, starting with nearly 16 weeks in the spring and early summer. Reopening in late June with timed ticketing and radically reduced capacity. A five-day closure due to poor air quality in September. The collapse of Pier 58, our nearest pier to the south and home to Waterfront Park. Another closure in the late fall that extended into the new year, and more.
All told, the Seattle Aquarium was closed for 197 days in 2020. In a typical year, that number is two. In 2020, we welcomed 209,452 community members through our doors. In recent years, we’ve averaged well over 800,000.
Clearly, it was an extraordinarily challenging year—for the Seattle Aquarium, for our community, and for the world. It was also a year of perseverance, versatility and humble gratitude for the tremendous outpouring of community support for the Aquarium and its mission.
Above all, 2020 was a year of resilience: the theme of this report.
And although 2021 is well underway, many of last year’s challenges are still with us. We remain steadfast in our commitment to fulfill our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment, and it’s because of you that we’re able to continue that important work.
Thank you for being a vital part of our community. Your support is always valued—and in these difficult times, it means the world.
The Seattle Aquarium Resilience Fund
“A thriving, vibrant Seattle Aquarium is a key part of our city’s identity and we are committed to stewarding a strong organization as we move through this unprecedented time in our history. The Seattle Aquarium, like zoos and aquariums across the globe, has been greatly impacted by the pandemic and our temporary closure to the public resulted in millions in lost revenue for our nonprofit organization.
We remain steadfast in our commitment to our conservation mission and are working to ensure a resilient Seattle Aquarium and healthier ocean for generations to come.
Your gift to the Resilience Fund directly supports providing the best care for the animals we all love; supporting our dedicated staff; advancing science-based policies to better protect marine wildlife, Puget Sound and the greater world ocean; and educating the next generation of ocean conservationists.”
—Seattle Aquarium website at the launch of the Resilience Fund in May 2020. Keep reading to learn about the outpouring of support the fund received thanks to generous donors like you.
The Seattle Aquarium’s commitment to anti-racism
As part of our important and ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion work—and in response to the Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout the late spring/summer of 2020—the Seattle Aquarium articulated our anti-racism stance in a statement, excerpted here:
The Seattle Aquarium respects and celebrates the vitality and strength of the ethnic and cultural diversity that thrives in our neighborhood and surrounding communities. We recognize that we can only achieve our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment by including the skills and varied perspectives of our entire community. To include the entire community, we must be a welcoming and inclusive organization making the conscious decision to identify and challenge racism daily. This requires ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through our daily operations and plan for the future.
To read the full statement, visit our blog.
Saying farewell to Lootas the sea otter
Lootas, which means “Wave Eater” in the Haida language, was orphaned in Alaska after her mother was killed in a boating accident in 1997. She was hand-raised at the Aquarium, went on to become an integral part of our sea otter breeding program and successfully raised three pups.
Early on the morning of November 15, 2020, Lootas let her caregivers know that she had reached the end of her time and was provided with a humane passing. At over 23 years old, she lived well beyond the life expectancy for her species and was the eldest living sea otter in the North American studbook—a testament to the exceptional care she received throughout her lifetime. Her remains reside at the Burke Museum, where they can contribute to education and conservation.
Even as she grew older, Lootas never ceased to impress and delight staff, volunteers, members, visitors and supporters like you with her energy and tenacity. She is deeply missed.
DIVERSITY, ACCESS & INCLUSION
400 organizations in the Seattle Aquarium Connections program; 29,216 free Aquarium admissions distributed via individual tickets and group registrations; 5,725 admissions redeemed.
163 $25 Connections memberships sold and redeemed; 74 of those purchased by Connections partner organizations for their constituents; 140 of these for first-time Aquarium members.
4,382 free admissions for residents of Seattle and King County through the Seattle and King County museum pass programs.
First virtual diversity, equity and inclusion workshop offered to volunteers by trained Aquarium staff facilitators.
At the outset of the pandemic, Aquarium volunteers made reusable masks for essential on-site Aquarium staff; when the staff need was met, volunteers continued making them for distribution through our Connections community partners in support of our environmental justice goals.
111,572 people reached with 4,551 engagements on the Aquarium’s social media channels in support of our Beach Naturalist program.
We made significant modifications to the Beach Naturalist program in summer 2020. Despite pandemic-related challenges, 71 masked beach naturalists engaged in 12,030 physically distanced interactions with members of the public at 10 local beaches over 15 low tide days. The Beach Naturalist program continued, with similar precautions in place, in summer 2021.
Empathy Fellowship program launches
After a delay due to COVID-19, we launched the Empathy Fellowship program in July 2020 through a cohort of two paid fellows seeking to explore careers in marine conservation through empathy and equity.
Our fellows learned about empathy, marine conservation, environmental justice and effective practices for virtual community engagement, and also developed community action projects that were personal to them, relevant to community equity needs and used empathy as the frame to support our mission.
One fellow developed a 10-week nudibranch and marine education program called “Aqueerium” for queer and trans youth seeking a safe and encouraging space to learn. The other planned a two-day career workshop for Latinx, immigrant youth interested in finding pathways into marine conservation work while navigating systems that aren’t designed for them.
The Empathy Fellowship program is generously funded by an anonymous foundation.
At left: Empathy Fellow Astrid Moncaleano Rubio.
1,931 pairs of salmon viewing glasses, along with a map to salmon viewing locations, background information about Cedar River salmon and the watershed, and the Living with Salmon in King County brochure, mailed to 571 families.
43,232 students and chaperones served and 340 classroom programs offered during the 2019–2020 school year and prior to the pandemic closure.
20 virtual engagement programs, including Window on Washington Waters diver shows, story times, "Ask the Aquarium—diver edition" and Rockin' Rockfish Noon Year's Eve, offered to the community during our temporary closures to the public.
Videos from five partner organizations and the Muckleshoot Canoe Family’s virtual welcome video were featured for the virtual version of Salmon Homecoming School Days in September 2020.
1,394 people were noted visiting the Cedar River to watch salmon as one to two Cedar River Salmon Journey field staff in personal protective equipment monitored six viewing stations on October weekends to tally visitors, record salmon observations and answer questions from the public if it was safe to do so.
In 2020, we continued work in fostering empathy for conservation with three hosted workshops for peer institutions prior to the pandemic and three virtual workshops. Six more workshops were postponed because of the pandemic. All in all, the Aquarium has hosted 26 Fostering Empathy for Wildlife workshops for 66 zoos and aquariums in 34 states with a combined annual attendance of over 71 million.
3,157 participants welcomed to our Toddler Time program before it was suspended in March 2020 due to the pandemic.
Community Science program moves forward despite pandemic
This hands-on, inquiry-based marine science education program is designed to stimulate science inquiry in historically underrepresented students in the Puget Sound region. About 375 high school students participate each year. Using local beaches as a classroom, students and their teachers monitor, gather and communicate scientifically significant data and share their results with schools, local governments and environmental agencies.
To reinvent the program while schools were closed, the Community Science team engaged high school teachers who participated in past seasons in monthly roundtable discussions to help shape the program. As a result of these ongoing conversations, Community Science adapted curriculum, created new digital assets and rolled out real-time, online classes. Every aspect—from the core lessons to final presentations—was co-developed with educator input.
At right: The Community Science program in action at Alki Beach.
Led by Director of Conservation Programs & Partnerships (CPP) Dr. Erin Meyer, team members gave 24 presentations to academic and community audiences; hosted one conference, two conference sessions and two workshops; and were invited to serve as panelists for six partner events.
CPP staff were quoted in 11 original media articles and interviewed during 12 radio and broadcast slots, covering topics ranging from microplastics to sea otters to policy issues to moving toward an equitable, sustainable future. Team members also gave public testimony during six hearings.
Hosted the 2nd Pycnopodia Sea Star Recovery Workshop, with participants from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California, to formally kick off the range-wide population assessment and IUCN listing process, which was submitted in August 2020.
The CPP team completed seven academic publications and 17 Seattle Aquarium blog posts.
In early March (pre-pandemic), hosted the 4th Northeast Pacific Shark Symposium in La Paz, Mexico, with 77 talks and over 100 people in attendance.
Hosted the inaugural (and virtual) Developing Empathy for Conservation Outcomes (DECO) conference, with more than 130 participants representing over 60 zoos, aquariums, universities and other conservation organizations from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Denmark.
Hosted our first (and virtual) Ocean Advocacy Workshop, providing an overview on ocean policy, examples of success stories and training on specific advocacy tools.
During a year in which we closed the Aquarium, laid off staff and reduced hours of those remaining, Director of Conservation Programs & Partnerships Dr. Erin Meyer and Ocean Policy Manager Nora Nickum worked tirelessly to help advance important conservation legislation in Olympia. —Patti Dill, Conservation Committee co-chair
I’m proud of the Aquarium’s collaborative work and inaugural (virtual) Developing Empathy for Conservation Outcomes conference. The event sought to set the landscape for research into how empathy might be used strategically to foster conservation action and attracted more than 130 participants from 60 organizations located in 25 states and four countries. —Charles Wright, Conservation Committee co-chair
Shaping and advancing science-based ocean policy
In 2020, our policy team wrote and signed on to 41 federal, 26 state and one local comment letters, including leading 30 letters—more than double 2019. We also gave public testimony during six legislative and regulatory hearings.
We took action for southern resident orcas and salmon recovery through 10 federal and 19 state comment letters and by testifying before the state legislature and Fish and Wildlife Commission. And our Ocean Policy Manager Nora Nickum served on the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Advisory Committee for the development of southern resident orca–related rules for a new commercial whale-watching license.
We also took action to reduce plastics pollution by providing input on proposed federal and state legislation, testifying before the state legislature, attending the launch of the federal Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act in Washington, D.C., and hosting a screening of the Story of Plastic film before the pandemic struck.
At left: Ocean Policy Manager Nora Nickum with Senator Patty Murray and Todd Shuster (Gato Verde) in Washington, D.C. ,during a March 2020 trip coordinated by Ocean Conservancy to talk about the importance of robust funding for NOAA.
Completed our 20th year of sea otter (Enhydra lutris) conservation projects, including our 11th year of sea otter foraging research, spending 14 days in the field, during which we documented 647 foraging dives across 12 sites. This was our second-highest data collection year, just 53 dives shy from our previous high year in 2019, even though the COVID-19 pandemic halted fieldwork for three months in the late spring.
Completed our 16th year of rocky reef research in the Salish Sea, conducting 17 dive surveys across six sites, with divers from Conservation Programs & Partnerships, Life Sciences and Visitor Engagement. We documented just over 1,000 fish across seven species, mostly rockfish (Sebastes spp.). Due to COVID-19, the Makah Tribe closed their lands and waters to non-tribal members, so we were unable to survey our sites in Neah Bay.
In January 2020 (pre-pandemic), we completed our 12th year of Hawai‘i coral reef research, including conducting 16 dive surveys at eight sites, capturing eight hours of video. We documented thousands of fish across >150 species. Our results show a recovery of both fish and corals following the 2015–2016 bleaching event.
Hired our first post-doctoral research fellow, Dr. Lyda Harris, who is leading microplastics research and monitoring projects in a donor-funded, full-time, one-year position. We continued monitoring microplastics at seven sites throughout the Salish Sea in conjunction with our rocky reef surveys and are now close to publishing two years of monitoring Elliott Bay, just off the Aquarium’s piers.
Leading research to improve understanding and management of ocean health
While the pandemic shifted how and where we conduct research, we persevered and completed our 11th field season studying sea otter foraging, 16th season of our rocky reef research and 12th year of our Hawai‘i coral reef research.
We also pushed forward on our microplastics research and monitoring program, hiring our first post-doctoral research fellow in a temporary, grant-funded position. We have since been able to expand the scope of the research and prepare our first article for publication on this topic.
At right: Dr. Lyda Harris, our first post-doctoral research fellow.
EXPERTISE IN ANIMAL CARE, WELFARE AND REHABILITATION
Sharing cuttlefish hatchlings: After a productive season of egg laying by our resident dwarf cuttlefish (Sepia bandensis), we were able to send hatchlings to Association of Zoos & Aquariums–accredited (AZA-accredited) institutions, including Brookfield Zoo, Mote Aquarium and the Albuquerque BioPark.
Fall 2020: Welcome to Ink Jet and Kraken, two new giant Pacific octopuses (GPOs). Field diving for GPOs couldn’t be undertaken early in the pandemic, and we don’t normally collect during the summer. The six-week search for Ink Jet and Kraken involved 19 dives, 14 sites, eight staff and 18 hours underwater.
We’re now working with AZA partners and other international aquariums accredited under regional associations to acquire sharks, rays and other fishes born and/or hatched under human care for our new Ocean Pavilion.
2020 births at the Aquarium: Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) and lined seahorses (Hippocampus erectus)—two marine fish species for which the AZA has species management plans.
Two relief veterinarians engaged to support the team when additional support is needed for surgeries and when Dr. Hadfield is unavailable: Dr. Brian Joseph and Dr. Alicia McLaughlin.
Using our expertise to restore endangered species
We launched our species recovery program in 2020, advancing two new projects:
Aiming to re-establish a resilient population of Indo-Pacific leopard/zebra sharks in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Archipelago, we launched the Stegostoma tigrinum Augmentation and Recovery (StAR) project with partners from Conservation International, Georgia Aquarium and Misool Foundation. This world-first conservation initiative will leverage captive breeding in several accredited aquariums to support restoration of the wild population and serve as the foundation for similar recovery efforts.
We also joined with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF), WA Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), NOAA and other partners to advance pinto abalone recovery in the Salish Sea, with an aim to restore local populations of this state-listed endangered species. This project is funded, in part, by a grant from PSRF with funds from WDFW and an anonymous donor.
At left: Director of Conservation Programs & Partnerships Dr. Erin Meyer releasing pinto abalone yearlings into our rearing facility.
Carol Ann O’Mack, 1947–2021
The Seattle Aquarium lost a staunch advocate with the passing of longtime supporter Carol Ann O’Mack. It is with sorrow and celebration that we pay tribute to Carol Ann for her tremendous support, counsel and engagement in our conservation work.
Carol Ann’s involvement with the Seattle Aquarium began in 2008. Passionate about the issue of plastic pollution, she generously helped launch much of our current microplastics research—funding paid, part-time microplastics research assistant interns and, most recently, our first-ever full-time post-doctoral microplastics research fellow.
Carol Ann’s tremendous contributions to the Aquarium and commitment to our mission will always be remembered with gratitude.
A special thank you to our volunteers
Although our doors were closed to the public for a substantial portion of 2020, our amazing and dedicated team of volunteers remained as active and engaged with the Aquarium as circumstances would allow. Despite severe, pandemic-related restrictions on volunteer involvement at the Aquarium itself, this incredible group donated over 27,000 hours of service—the equivalent of 13 full-time paid staff and representing a value of over $750,000. To view a list of our 2020 volunteers, please visit our website.
At left: Our dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers share their knowledge with visitors at the different habitats around the Aquarium.