Jax, 6, Weston, 8, Evan, 8, Teegan, 8, Tucker, 8, and Jay, 6 were some of the Ucluelet Aquarium’s first patrons of the year as the unique collect, care for and release facility opened its doors to kick off the 2019 season on March 1. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

Ucluelet Aquarium model spawning inspiration worldwide

Groups from B.C., Nova Scotia, the State of Washington and Scotland are learning from Ucluelet.

A big idea to build a tiny aquarium in Ucluelet has made a very real and meaningful impact worldwide.

The Ucluelet Aquarium opened its doors to hearty fanfare on March 1, officially kicking off its season to the delight of residents and visitors.

The aquarium was the first of its kind when its founder Philip Bruecker filled a small, temporary, shack-like facility off Ucluelet’s harbour with specimens, which were collected from local waters, as part of a 2004 pilot project. The crux of Bruecker’s idea was that the specimens would be cared for at the aquarium while connecting patrons to their oceanic neighbours before then being released back into their natural ecosystems at each season’s end.

The project proved so successful that it led to the construction of its current, permanent facility in 2012, a stone’s throw away from where the mini-aquarium had first opened. Ucluelet’s former mini-aquarium is still in operation in Campbell River and Bruecker’s vision and its proven success inspired like-minded marine biologists who are opening similar facilities in communities throughout the globe.

The proliferation of catch and release aquariums was represented in force during the Ucluelet Aquarium’s first Mini-Aquarium Conference held the weekend prior to 2019’s season-opener.

Organizations from B.C., Nova Scotia, the State of Washington and Scotland that are operating, or want to operate, their own educational facility based on Ucluelet’s model were represented during the conference, which included presentations on lessons learned through successes and mistakes.

“I love that there’s a lot of education involved in the Ucluelet Aquarium and that’s what this weekend was all about, educating people like myself who do not have an aquarium yet but we’re at the very larval phase of our aquariums to help us learn what we need to know to move forward,” said Kim Ballantyne who hopes to bring the Ucluelet Aquarium model to her community on Salt Spring Island.

Ballantyne said “everyone comes to our Island on the water, in one way or another,” but too few are aware of what’s going on within it.

“They come on the water but most of them don’t know what’s under there and if they don’t know they’re not going to care about it and if they don’t care about it they’re not going to do anything to help protect it. So, if we can bring some of those animals that live under the water to the surface so that people can engage with those animals and build a relationship, start to care, connect, get excited and want to do something to actually help what’s going on in our oceans.”

She added that inspiring children through unique touch tank experiences creates environmental stewards who bring the lessons they’ve learned home to share with their families.

Ucluelet Aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane said the conference was a great way to share ideas around creating meaningful connections between the public and ocean environments.

“It’s been fantastic. It’s been really great. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve met some great people and I’m so stoked. It’s very inspiring and it’s really heartwarming,” she said.

“We’ve been incredibly well supported by our community and by other groups. So, in the spirit of giving back, there’s been so much that we’ve learned over the years and we wanted to be able to provide all of the groups that are interested with an opportunity to learn from some of the successes that we’ve had and some of the mistakes that we’ve made so that they can be great and share all the things that they learn with us down the road.”

Grace Lambert is the assistant manager of the Mull Aquarium off the west coast of Scotland and told the Westerly News the facility was entirely inspired by, and based off of, Ucluelet’s.

“We wouldn’t exist without Ucluelet so we felt like we had to come and it’s been an amazing opportunity to learn about how other aquariums do it…There’s so many ideas that we can share. It’s been really helpful and it’s been really nice networking,” Lambert said. “We’re actually Europe’s first catch and release aquarium, so we don’t have a huge amount of networking to do back home and this has been amazingly useful for us.”

The Mull Aquarium is entering its fifth season this year and Lambert said it’s grown into a popular educational attraction.

“Even if you’ve grown up by the sea, you might not ever have held a starfish that lives just metres from the shore,” she said. “I think it’s really important for people to learn what’s on their doorstep.”

Graham Starsage manages and curates the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre, which opened in Gibsons in 2017 and is based on Ucluelet’s example of not only collecting and releasing local specimens, but ensuring interpreters are on hand to explain each specimen as well.

“We’re wowing visitors, we’re inspiring people and people are learning a lot so we’re hitting it out of the park,” Starsage told the Westerly. “Our social and economic sphere is based on the ocean…There’s a whole universe down there that’s most of the earth and we depend on it to support us as human beings. We depend on it for industry and it’s also just so inspiring. It’s a beautiful, mysterious place. We’re hoping to inspire behaviour change and action, pro-environmental behaviours; things that humans need right now in our world, which is threatened by our own actions.”

Hilary Masson and Megan Osmond-Jones hope to launch an ecological centre with an aquarium component in Gabriola Island and attended the conference to hear ideas.

“We’ve heard so much about people’s successes and failures and heard so much of people’s passion and perseverance to make it happen,” said Osmond-Jones.

Masson added that the centre would offer another attraction for visitors to come enjoy providing spin-off benefits for the local tourism industry.

“There’s lots of ways to do environmental education and to get people’s attention and to interact with either the marine environment or just environmental issues. But, there’s something about being able to touch or see or learn in a way that you leave that interaction that you have at the Ucluelet Aquarium with more than if you’d just walked along a beach,” she said. “You can inspire people in a different way.”

Ucluelet councillor Jennifer Hoar attended a beach seine at Little Beach as part of the conference and told the Westerly it was “wonderful” to see so many people from across the world gather to celebrate the Ucluelet Aquarium’s model.

“The aquarium is a fabulous little amenity in our town,” she said. “It does draw people to the community, but it also teaches about our environment. It teaches what’s out there. People see the sea and they maybe catch a fish or two, but they don’t know about the invertebrates, they don’t know about the ecology and how that ecosystem and the whole web works. The aquarium is just this wonderful opportunity to teach people what’s under that blue-green water.”

The aquarium’s founder Philip Bruecker told the Westerly he was still coming to terms with the conference’s success and said he felt “overwhelmed” hearing presentations from organizations around the world citing his efforts in Ucluelet as the origins of their inspiration.

“I think it was, in some very vague terms, the original intention of this aquarium that it actually becomes a model for other people to do something similar,” he said. “All of these aquariums are deeply rooted and a part of the ecology, you could say, of the community and the community is the lifeblood that keeps them going.”

He added that communities and visitors are falling in love with the model of collecting specimens, caring for them for a season and then returning them to their ecosystem they came from.

“We all treasure our own personal freedom and I don’t think we like seeing other creatures have their freedom restricted. So, maybe, it’s a gut level reaction to that on an empathetic level,” he said.

Jim Shinkewski of the Pacific Salmon Foundation is the vice president of the Ucluelet Aquarium’s board and said the release model is on the leading edge of an industry shift.

“We need to be cognizant of the public opinion of aquariums, zoos and marine science centres and this is the leading edge of where the industry may move to in the future,” he said.

“People seem to be sensitive to the welfare of animals and the balance of education versus the impact on the animals and the natural populations from which they’re derived and this seems to be a very happy compromise that everyone can live with.”

READ MORE: VIDEO: Ucluelet Aquarium surveying migration of microplastics

READ MORE: VIDEO: Ucluelet Aquarium hosts plastic-free market

READ MORE: Ucluelet Aquarium swings open new season

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