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Thoughtful Thursdays: Get to Know Our Chief Conservation Officer

by Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation

Published August 22, 2013

On July 1st, Eric Schwaab joined the National Aquarium as our (first-ever) Senior Vice President and our Chief Conservation Officer. This newly-created position was developed to lead the Aquarium’s efforts in becoming a national leader in aquatic conservation and environmental stewardship.

Upon his appointment, Aquarium CEO John Racanelli said, “We are dedicated to our mission of inspiring conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. Eric’s wealth of experience and passion will help us expand and better promote conservation action to protect the ocean, our planet’s life support system."

Now that he’s a couple of months into his new role, I sat down with him to discuss his thoughts and plans!

Tell us a little about your background and why this work is important to you.

Eric Schwaab: I grew up in the Baltimore area and have many great memories of fishing, crabbing, boating and swimming on Maryland’s Atlantic Coast and in the Chesapeake Bay. Later in college I connected again to the natural world through work at Piney Run Park in Carroll County. That was the point that I really know that I wanted to make natural resource conservation a career focus. I have been very fortunate to realize that goal. Before coming to National Aquarium earlier this summer I was serving as the acting Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management for the US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) overseeing work on a range of national fisheries, coastal and ocean issues. Immediately before that, as Assistant Administrator for Fisheries at NOAA, I was responsible for directing the National Marine Fisheries Service in its work on science, management and conservation of federal fisheries, marine mammals, sea turtles and other protected resources within the United States. I led the agency’s work to end overfishing, implement “catch share” management programs to better align the interests of commercial fishing businesses with conservation goals, and efforts to improve coastal and ocean habitat conservation.

Prior to your work in the federal government, you were the Deputy Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDDNR) and had previously served in other DNR capacities. What did these experiences teach you that will prepare you for your new role at the Aquarium?

ES: Working on conservation issues in a populated state like Maryland really forces you to understand the role that people must play in protecting our environment. We also live in a state where most people place great value on their natural surroundings. Chesapeake Bay conservation efforts in particular unite us, as we understand that mountain streams, forests and farms, and our urban and suburban communities all play roles in ensuring clean water and healthy habitats for fish, crabs and oysters. I have been fortunate to have had the chance to work closely with legislative leaders, state agencies, local governments and local residents across Maryland to support important state conservation initiatives, including Chesapeake Bay restoration, forest conservation, park land protection and fisheries conservation.

What interested you most about this position?

ES: Ultimately if we can show people what healthy bays, oceans, streams, and coral reefs look like, we have a good start toward inspiring them to do their part to make sure we have more “out there” of what they love here at the Aquarium. Through our exhibits and our current work in conservation and science, National Aquarium is helping to redefine the role of public aquariums as catalysts for tangible change in how people care for oceans and aquatic systems. Our role as a trusted source of information and our ability to communicate with millions of people annually provide significant opportunities to influence public policy and personal behavior on behalf of sustainable ocean conservation. I look forward to helping to lead that work.

You've held some pretty important positions within both the state and federal governments. With that experience, what is the most important thing you've learned?

ES: Even in high level state and federal government positions, real conservation commitment and action occurs at the local level. While effective conservation action depends upon sound science, effective strategies and rigorous attention to results, the most important ingredient is still local commitment to action. Having people who value natural resources and understand the strong, inherent relationship between a healthy environment and healthy communities and sustainable economies is critical. We see this everywhere today. Whether in the form of resilient coasts, sustainable fisheries or popular natural tourist attractions, communities gain when natural resources are healthy.

What is the biggest challenge we face in improving the health of our oceans?

ES: Understanding that we all must do our part. Climate change, ocean acidification and warming, depletion of fish stocks, and many of our remaining pollution challenges result from the cumulative actions of many individuals. These problems will not be addressed solely through some government program or “that other guy” behaving differently. We each have to take some responsibility for energy conservation, reducing fossil fuel emissions, maintaining healthy watersheds and making smart purchasing decisions if we are to sustain the resources we depend on and care about.

Much of your recent work has dealt with sustainable fisheries. What is the one thing you would like our readers to (understand or do) with regards to taking responsibility towards healthy fish populations?

ES: We have made a lot of progress nationally in ending over fishing and rebuilding depleted stocks. And while there is still work to do here and abroad, the bigger challenges to fisheries sustainability here and around the world are in declining health of coastal and ocean habitats. The best fishery management in the world will fall short if we do not take care of our coasts and oceans.

What are the next steps for National Aquarium's Conservation Department?

We are committed to telling the conservation story more effectively. The feature exhibits here represent ecosystems that are threatened here in the Bay region and around the world. We want to use these exhibits to inspire greater appreciation and conservation action, among visitors, throughout the community and even among those who have not yet visited here in Baltimore. We also want to be more directly involved in conservation research, policy and action. We will be growing our work on important conservation science, policy and management issues, taking advantage of our experts in Baltimore and Washington, DC and enhance partnerships with others involved in this important work. And we will be seeking your help through member support and engagement.

If you could ask the reader to do one thing to improve our natural world, what would that be?

ES: Stop, look and appreciate all the natural world has to offer - - everything else will follow.

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