Chairman’s Dinner 2018: “Creatures in the ocean don’t have a choice. We do.”

That was just one of the insights offered by Dr. Sylvia A. Earle as she accepted the Seattle Aquarium’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award at our Chairman’s Dinner on January 25. This annual event honors community and scientific leaders who have worked to preserve and protect marine environments both locally and around the world.

In 2007, the Aquarium presented Dr. Earle with the Seattle Aquarium Medal, which is presented each year to an individual whose leadership and lifetime accomplishments reflect the Aquarium’s mission. She was selected for her pioneering research, writing and exploration that helped increase understanding of the ocean and make its protection an international priority—work that she continues to do as the ocean’s most visible proponent.

Recognized by the Library of Congress as a “Living Legend,” Dr. Earle is chairman of deep ocean exploration and research and an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. She has led more than 60 research expeditions worldwide, involving in excess of 7,000 hours underwater, and is founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.)/Mission Blue, founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research Inc. (DOER), chair of the advisory council for the Harte Research Institute and former chief scientist of NOAA.

This year, the Seattle Aquarium Medal was replaced by the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award—and, upon presenting it to Dr. Earle, Aquarium President & CEO Robert W. Davidson also announced that the Medal is being renamed. It will henceforth be known as the Seattle Aquarium Sylvia Earle Medal. The first award under the new name will be given at our 2019 Chairman’s Dinner.

Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award

Megan N. Dethier, Ph.D., a research professor in the biology department at the University of Washington who is in full-time residence at the Friday Harbor Laboratories, received the Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award, which honors individuals performing leadership research in the field.

Since the late 1970s, Dr. Dethier has been working on the shoreline ecology of the Pacific Northwest. She designed a marine habitat classification system for Washington state, and has worked with the National Park Service and various Washington agencies designing shoreline mapping and monitoring programs. Her current research efforts are mostly focused in Puget Sound, investigating the linkage between physical features of shoreline habitats and their biota, and the effects of human impacts (such as shoreline armoring) on this linkage.

Scott S. Patrick Inspirational Award

President & CEO Davidson presented longtime board member George Willoughby with the Scott S. Patrick Inspirational Award. Named for the late Aquarium board member and Seattle Seahawks executive who served with extraordinary passion, the award annually recognizes the Seattle Aquarium board member whose service best exemplifies the passion, leadership and enthusiasm which characterized Scott Patrick’s life and board service.

Pictured from left to right: Jim Wharton, director of conservation and education; Robert W. Davidson, president and CEO; Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, Lifetime Achievement Award winner; Bob Donegan, board chair;  George Willoughby, Scott S. Patrick Inspirational Award winner; Dr. Megan N. Dethier, Seattle Aquarium Conservation Research Award winner.

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Ocean Career Day guest blog: From Seattle to Baja

A career in marine science doesn’t always require a degree in marine biology—staff members at the Seattle Aquarium possess a wide variety of educational and employment backgrounds. For instance, Seattle Aquarium Community Partner Program Coordinator Jasmine Davis spends her days at the Aquarium helping to increase access for underserved audiences throughout the community via our Connections program. Away from the office, she’s embarked on a fascinating educational journey, some of which she shares with us below.

From Seattle to Baja: scientists connecting to place through marine science

Last year I was accepted into Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to pursue my master’s degree in teaching biological sciences. As a part of my graduate course I get to travel to biodiversity hotspots around the world—and this past summer I was able to travel to the Baja Peninsula to explore the geography of the area, including the Sea of Cortez, as part of a course focused on applying field methods as a foundation for ecological questions and conservation practice.

Through this course I learned about the fundamental tools needed that allow us to investigate and interact with the world around us. By understanding the process of how science is performed, I am better able to inform the public on environmental concerns.

Out of this trip I was able to come up with a comparative research question that I spent the rest of the semester collecting data on and analyzing through the tools I learned in the class. My research question focused on diversity and inclusion within marine science and analyzed how the Seattle Aquarium Connections program is helping to make a difference in reaching a more ethnically diverse audience. Being a scientist within marine conservation is not just about the amazing animals I was able to interact with—but also about the people. How we engage and interact with people, how each and every one of us has a connection to the ocean, and how culture and heritage are key components to this connection.  Thinking about ethnic diversity within marine conservation is just one way that I choose as a scientist to think differently and challenge what marine science looks like. 

During my trip not only did I have the opportunity to participate in science, I also got to experience it by stepping out of my comfort zone and authentically engaging with a sense of place. My experiences of this place connected me to the land and the water in a similar way that we at the Seattle Aquarium try to emulate for those who do not have the opportunities to go out in Puget Sound: To evoke the same awe and wonder that connects you to marine science and inspires you to want to take action to conserve this marine environment.

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Seattle Aquarium research in Hawaii part 2: water quality analyses

In our first blog post, we shared details about the reef surveys conducted in Hawaii by the Seattle Aquarium every winter since 2009. In 2017, our ninth consecutive year in Hawaii, we added a water quality component to our marine fish/coral surveys as part of a NOAA coral reef health grant we received to support this work.

Coral reefs and their associated fish assemblages are threatened and disappearing worldwide. Monitoring reef fish and coral health stability, growth or decline is important for the management of these fragile ecosystems. In addition, measuring the presence or persistence of toxic chemicals in these areas will shed light into how such chemicals may be producing negative effects on the reefs.

Twenty-one samples were taken, at depths ranging between 15 and 45 feet, in four different areas of the Big Island, over a span of five days. Because 2017 was our first year conducting water quality tests gathered at depth in these reef systems, our sample size is limited: one sample taken at one point in time. It’s important to put these values in context with data from other agencies with larger sample sizes and long-term datasets.

What did we measure and what were the results?

Enterococcus: A fecal indicator bacteria that occurs normally in the gut of vertebrates. If contained, there is no disease risk, but it may cause infections if introduced to other parts of the body. Results ranged from zero to 50 colony-forming units per 100 ml of water. All values were under the maximum sample value used to close Hawaii beaches.

Figure 1-Enterococcus results

Microplastics: Found in four out of seven sites.

PBDE (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers): Flame-retardant chemicals used in a wide variety of products. Hawaii banned the use of some forms of PBDE in 2004. Two samples had values just above the minimum detection limit of the assay (>0.04 ppb).

Pyrethroid: A common insecticide (the natural form is extracted from chrysanthemum), it’s chemically synthesized for large-scale use. Aquatic invertebrates and fish have been found to be sensitive to these chemicals. Five samples had values above the minimum detection limit (>1.085 ppb).

DDT (Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane): An organochlorine insecticide that was shown to be highly toxic and was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Twelve samples had values of >2.637 ppb. Because the DDT values are much higher than expected, we believe that matrix interference is occurring, and this assay cannot be accurately used for saltwater samples.

Glyphosate: The active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup™. The manufacturer claims that Roundup is harmless to animals and humans because the mechanism of action it uses (which allows it to kill weeds), called the shikimate pathway, is absent in all animals. However, the shikimate pathway is present in bacteria and targets beneficial as well as harmful bacteria, and thus may negatively affect fish, invertebrates or mammals. Results: Measured in all samples tested, over the minimum detection limit (>0.24 ppb).

Figure 2-Toxics results

Nitrates (as N): Nutrients found in human and animal waste, as well as the breakdown of plants. At high levels, nitrates encourage algal blooms, which can cause low oxygen levels in the water and lead to the death of oxygen-dependent marine organisms. Values ranged from 1.38 to 10.68 µmol/L.

Orthophosphate (as P): The reactive form of phosphate, produced by natural processes of decaying plants and animals and man-made sources such as partially treated/untreated sewage, runoff from agricultural sites, and application of some lawn fertilizers. Similarly to nitrates, it can cause algal blooms at high levels. Values ranged from 0.04 to 0.25 µmol/L.

Silica (as Si): Compounds present in all living organisms. Silicon and phosphorous or silicon and nitrogen ratio are thought to contribute to the type of algae that will dominate: diatoms versus cyanobacteria. Results ranged from 2.54 to 81 µmol/L.

Ammonium (as N): One of several forms of nitrogen that, at high levels, cause direct toxic effects on aquatic life. Results: below minimum detection limit of <0.36 µmol/L for all sites.


Some substances were found at higher rates in some sites than others—for instance, enterococcus and PBDE were highest at Site 1 (in Puako) and Site 4 (in Old Kona), suggesting influx of water likely from septic systems carrying these contaminants. Pyrethroids, glyphosate, nitrates, orthophoshates, glyphosate, DDT and ammonium were found in approximately equal amounts among all sites—meaning that these chemicals were used equally at each site.

Overall, the water quality in these areas was relatively good at depth. Because the samples were taken at the reef level (not in surface waters, and not along the shoreline), it’s expected for them to be lower than what other research groups may have reported in surface and shoreline waters. These levels are baseline and should be repeated to determine significant trends.

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Seattle Aquarium research in Hawaii part 1: reef surveys

Wish you had a reason to travel to Hawaii during Seattle’s chilly and wet winters? Then you might envy the Seattle Aquarium biologists who travel to the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island every winter to conduct annual reef surveys, a research project that launched in 2009.

Survey sites are located in both marine-protected and non-protected areas, and the surveys themselves are conducted with underwater video shot by Aquarium divers. After returning to dry land, Aquarium staff members count the fish in the videos, and the resulting data is used to determine significant changes in species diversity or abundance over time, and between protected and non-protected areas.

Coral reefs and their associated fish assemblages are threatened and disappearing worldwide. Monitoring reef fish and coral health stability, growth or decline is important for the management of these fragile ecosystems.

Although there is variability in the counts from year to year, overall most fish species have increased slightly over time the monitoring began in 2009.

2017 results

A total of 27 transects were recorded at seven sites, resulting in almost five hours of video. From these, the following counts were made:

Site Total fish Total species Shannon diversity index (H’)*
1 187 41 2.46
2 223 37 2.61
3 378 42 2.14
4 307 41 2.42
5** 35 16 2.19
6 129 38 2.50
7 106 38 2.81

*Commonly used to characterize species diversity in a community.
** Surveyed during high seas, resulting in very low visibility.

Results over time

Both number of species observed and Shannon diversity index from 2009 through 2017:

Figure 1: Average number of species observed in transects moving forward, across eight sites from 2009 to 2017 on the Big Island, HI. *Site 5 in 2017 was surveyed during high seas, resulting in very low visibility.
Figure 2: Shannon diversity index (H’) over eight sites from 2009 to 2017. This index takes into account both the number of species present and evenness of species in relation to one another. High values indicate more diversity.

Up-close look at increases in kole tangs over all sites and years:

Figure 3: Kole tang numbers

What do the results mean?

The numbers of fish species observed on transects over time remained relatively stable with gradual increases over time, and with dramatic increases in some species such as kole tangs. Plus there has been stable diversity of fish at most sites—with increases in diversity noted at sites 3 and 4 particularly. In other words, this is very good news!

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Seattle Aquarium in the community: spotlight on ReWA

The Seattle Aquarium’s Connections program, which provides complimentary admission tickets through a network of over 300 community partner organizations, was launched through the Aquarium’s work to be inclusive and welcoming to all—and belief that our audience should reflect the diversity of our region.

The program’s goal is to provide opportunities to experience the Aquarium to those in our community who might otherwise experience barriers to engaging with us. Through these opportunities, we aim to create authentic, mutually beneficial relationships that build trust among the Aquarium and our partner communities, and provide quality, culturally relevant marine conservation educational experiences to all.

One of our many partnerships is with Seattle’s Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA), a nonprofit, multi-ethnic organization that provides refugee and immigrant women and their families with culturally and linguistically appropriate services while promoting inclusion, independence, personal leadership and strong communities.

As it turns out, the partnership not only furthers the Aquarium’s mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment—it furthers ReWA’s mission as well. “The nature of the partnership is really unique,” says ReWA Director of Early Childhood Education Operations and Volunteer Service Susan Lee. “The Aquarium really gets our mission and what we’re trying to do.”

For example, Susan found that parents served by ReWA were often hesitant to accompany their children on field trips, due to language barriers, cultural boundaries and other factors. Additionally, income limitations made it challenging for the families to visit cultural institutions like the Aquarium on their own. So ReWA and the Aquarium worked together to develop opportunities for parents and preschool-aged children to experience the Aquarium together.

The first such opportunity was in 2014, at the Aquarium’s Open House—an annual event which welcomes families who work with our Connections partners for an evening of exploring the Aquarium, listening to bilingual talks, and participating in special activities. After learning through post-event feedback that transportation was the single largest obstacle in getting families to participate, the Aquarium was able to provide transportation to and from the event in subsequent years. “That transportation assistance was invaluable,” says Susan. “For the underserved, just getting to the Aquarium is a challenge.”

Through events like Open House and other opportunities, parents can learn alongside their children—and also develop the confidence to chaperone field trips as their kids progress through school.

In another example, our beach naturalist program partnered with ReWA last summer for a field trip to a local shoreline, with educational, pre-trip classes for youth as well. “It was incredible,” says ReWA Youth Program Manager Emily Tomita. “A hands-on, tactile experience, and brand new to the kids—for some, this was only their first or second visit to the beach.” Adds Susan Lee, “The Aquarium has been instrumental in opening many doors, opportunities and aspirations for the families at ReWA, providing a sense of community and lasting memories of a fun learning experience.”

Seattle Aquarium members and donors, thank you for the support that makes the Connections program—and our partnership with ReWA—possible!

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