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Outgoing president/CEO of aquarium reflects on his time in Long Beach—and his love of fish

Dr. Jerry Schubel, who served as president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific for 18 years before retiring last month, is pictured at the facility’s Moon Jelly touch station. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

A few years ago I asked Jerry Schubel what, exactly, makes him qualified to run an aquarium. Like, did he used to work in a tropical fish store in a strip mall somewhere or what?

Schubel, who came to Long Beach in 2002 to become president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, told me, without a tinge of braggadaccio, but rather in a way that he thought might help me with a fact or two for my story, that he had come here after having been been president and CEO of the New England Aquarium and, for 20 years, from 1974 until 1994, he had been dean of Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Research Center. He was also an adjunct professor, research scientist, and associate director of Johns Hopkins University’s Chesapeake Bay Institute.

So, no real boots-on-the-ground experience in working in a tropical fish store, then. Just another guy with a Ph.D. in oceanography from Johns Hopkins University.

Schubel’s 18-year successful if not triumphant tenure as the aquarium’s president ended a week ago, when he handed the facility over to his successor, Peter Kareiva, who will be the aquarium’s third leader since it opened on June 20, 1998 under founding president Warren Iliff.

One of Schubel’s initial and longest ambitions for the aquarium was to make the facility an educational institution as well as a beautiful way to display and allow people to interact with the sprawling array of animals that can be found in the Pacific Ocean.

He established the Aquatic Forum, a series of lectures, seminars and panel discussions  that that bring scientists, policymakers, and other experts to explain and discuss ways of dealing with often complex, and often controversial, environmental issues facing California and the nation, such as climate change, rising sea levels, drought, pollution, aquaculture and sustainable energy.

He was also generous with his time as an expert on matters of the sea. And was instrumental as a source for the Long Beach Post’s award-winning series on climate change, “Close to Home: How Climate Change Is Changing the Future of Long Beach.”

Schubel, too, has learned a few things as a result of his emphasis on education.

“I’ve learned that there’s a great thirst among the general public for accurate and clearly expressed information that is delivered in a way that they can use it to improve their own lives and the environment,” he said. “The lectures, the Aquatic Forum, the Aquarium Academy, they all work together and as long as they give information that’s relevant to their lives and delivered in a way that’s understandable—it’s like journalism. Give them the facts in an understandable way.”

He has accomplished that through hitting nationally renowned experts from scientific communities, universities and wherever else he can find them.

“I call it ‘catch-and-release’,” he said. “We bring them in, suck all the knowledge and information we can get from them, and then let them go.”

After spending the better part of his life dealing with aquariums and sea life, has Schubel just about had a bellyful of fish.

“Not at all. I do like fish. They’re tasty and they’re good for your health,” he says.

He’s a bit miffed at the governmental permit process that has finally allowed for aquaculturists to farm shellfish, but so far farming fin fish has not been allowed, a matter of concern because allowing the raising of food fish would not only provide the jobs that will be much needed when COVID-19 is finally reached a manageable level, but it would also put a dent, at least, in the severe overfishing, both legally and illegally, that has plagued all of the world’s oceans.

“The ocean has to play a much bigger role in the future and California and Long Beach can set an example,” said Schubel. “Life is going to change with sea level rise and climate change and as we come out of COVID there’s going to be a huge wake in terms of funding. The ocean can play a role in providing jobs and money. The state has done a very good job in protecting the coast, but now we have to develop opportunity zones as a complement to nature without harming the sea. And with COVID, now’s the time to do that. Never fail to take advantage of a big crisis.”

If COVID offers us a chance to further develop a controlled and sustainable harvest of the sea, the coronavirus has also had a bit of a calming effect on the planet, with the world, at various stages, shutting down, leaving cars off the roads, airplanes on the tarmac and ships at harbor.

Not only has the sudden drop in transportation cleaned up the air, however temporarily, it has also made life undersea more tolerable, he said.

“The ocean is less noisy now. Marine mammals are moving back to places they haven’t been to in years. The disease has focused the spotlight on the need to rethink a lot of things we’re going to have to do in the future in terms of how and where we work.”

As well as a lot of personal sacrifices and a lot of work. I reminded Schubel that sacrifice and hard work aren’t things that people enjoy as a rule.

“No, you’re right, they don’t, but that’s what it will take: Patience, consistency of commitment and lots of work,” he said. “People’s wants far exceed their needs, that’s true. Having a healthy relationship with nature is critical, though. We have great creativity in California and it leads to innovation in tech and other areas, but not so much in the ocean, because too we have a permit system that strangles innovation. I think we should use that creativity to solve some of these persistent problems.”

Another thing Schubel accomplished was the controversial move of taking Long Beach’s name off what was originally called the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific.

“Yes, we got some flak for that, but it was my position that we serve Long Beach better by being a national and international institution, rather than a regional one,” he said. “It was a confident decision, and I think it worked.”

Perhaps Schubel’s greatest legacy is the aquarium’s latest edition, Pacific Visions, an ambitious $53 million extension that was added to the facility with its opening in February. It is, Schubel is fond of saying, an installment dedicated to “the one animal that’s putting all the other animals on this planet at risk.” That is, of course, us.

“Pacific Visions was the culmination of a lot of work we put in on developing a platform that would justify its $50 million cost,” he said. “There was some discussion about bigger tanks for bigger animals, but then you’re pretty much stuck with that.”

And even though COVID struck before Pacific Visions could get firmly on its feet, Schubel believes that when it opens again, it will reach its full potential. “We’ve had great feedback from scientists and people in academics for its ability to deliver information to the public. It’s got a beautiful theater and it’s a perfect place for lectures and other programs. There are a lot of excellent programs at colleges and universities, but a lot of the public can feel intimidated by going to a campus. Our theater is very conducive to getting our message across to people. It’s what we wanted to do.”

But of course, for all the talk about education and coming up with possible solutions for all the planet’s calamities both past and future, there is the matter of the aquarium still being a great place to spend a couple of hours looking at its thousands of animals in brilliantly designed habitats.

Schubel’s favorites cleave fairly close to those of the general public. “I would have to say penguins, sea otters, sea lions.” I remind him that sea otters are actually brutal killers, though they are undeniably cute.

“Yes, they hide their true dispositions very well.”

And, of course, the octopus. “They’re one of the most intelligent animals in the world’s oceans,” said Schubel. “It’s ironic that they haven’t evolved to the point where they have a longer life span. They only live for about three years.

He recalled his days at the New England Aquarium, “when we couldn’t figure out why we were losing so many fish from this one tank, so we finally set up a video camera, and it showed an octopus crawling out of its tank and slithering across the floor and climbing up. It ate a few fish, then went back to the floor and climbed back into its tank.”

For most of his career in Long Beach, Schubel said he’s worked seven days a week. “Probably about 11 to 12 hours a day on weekdays then on Saturday and Sunday, I slack off to eight to 10 hours. But in the past two weeks I’ve been scaling down my hours.”

At the end of last month, his day scaled back to zero.

He and his wife Margaret plan to move to Oceanside, a few miles from their daughter’s home in Carlsbad.

“My wife is a very patient person,” said Schubel. “She’s always been very involved with the aquarium and everything I did. And she’s a wonderful writer and editor. She and I wrote all of the films we’ve done at the aquarium, and many of them won awards.”

Whether Schubel earns the title of president emeritus upon his retirement remains to be seen. “It’s an honorary title,” he says. “It doesn’t carry any duties. It’s just up to the board of directors whether they feel I’m worthy of it,” he said.

Memo to the board: He is.

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