Battle of the bags at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Meet Makana, the only captive Laysan albatross in North America. An ambassador for her species, she takes the stage at the Monterey Bay Aquarium everyday at 1:30 sharp, helping guests understand how human-made plastics—single-use bags, straws, water bottles—can end up in sea birds’ stomachs. One of the props in her show is a 12-inch tube filled with the actual contents found in another deceased albatross’ stomach… including bottle caps, dish soap lids, even a piece of Lego.

Part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s efforts to combat plastic pollution in California’s oceans, Makana enthralls many a kindergartener with her shy antics. But the albatross’ teaching moment is only the tip of the iceberg in the aquarium’s campaign in favor of Proposition 67, an upcoming state referendum affirming California’s single-use plastic bag ban.

Makana captivates her audience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The presentation places significant emphasis on the reduction of single-use plastic items like straws, water bottles, and of course, bags.

Makana captivates her audience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The presentation places significant emphasis on the reduction of single-use plastic items like straws, water bottles, and of course, bags. Photo by Aylin Woodward.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, which attracts 2 million visitors every year, has organized not only an internal campaign that incorporates staff members and exhibits on site, but also an impressive online presence that raises awareness about Proposition 67. The aquarium hopes that its involvement might set a precedent by demonstrating that educational institutions can have a major impact on voting at the polls.

“We have a whole lot of studies that show when voters are faced with an enormously complex task like getting through 17 ballot measures, that they look for cues from trusted organizations,” says Thad Kousser, Department Chair and Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego.

Something in the Water Down There

The aquarium supports the bag ban because it will help reduce a source of ocean plastic pollution, according to a post on its Future of the Ocean blog. This pollution is a major threat to ocean ecosystems, impacts marine wildlife, and poses a risk to human health, and the aquarium wants to ensure that its guests get that message loud and clear.

Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific down in Long Beach, admits that for the most part, most people do not go to aquariums to learn. “But if we’re clever enough when they come, then we can snooker them into learning important things,” he says.

A quick afternoon visit reveals that Monterey Bay Aquarium is bringing all that cleverness to bear: calls to action surrounding plastic pollution and voting Yes on 67 are everywhere.

“Vote Yes to Ban Plastic Bags” Campaign display at the Monterey Aquarium. CEO Julie Packard is featured top left.

“Vote Yes to Ban Plastic Bags” Campaign display at the Monterey Aquarium. CEO Julie Packard is featured top left. Photo by Aylin Woodward.

A new display now occupies a prominent corner on the second floor. Aquarium floor staff and volunteers are wearing bright blue Yes on 67 buttons—a quick check reveals they’ve all been trained to incorporate the call to action into their programs.

The online campaign is arguably even bigger. The aquarium’s social media group is pushing information through Facebook and Twitter. Two new YouTube videos have appeared, one of them starring Makana. Another blog post is aimed at confused voters, with a new podcast series accompaniment.

California voters: YES on Prop 67-and NO on Prop 65-for a plastic-free ocean!

We have a quick message for California voters, from us at the Aquarium and Makana, the Laysan albatross: Please vote Yes on Prop 67, and No on Prop 65! We know-why are there two props about plastic bags on the ballot this November?

CEO Julie Packard and her right-hand woman, Margaret Spring, have met with senators, assemblymen, and members of the Obama administration in the aquarium’s quest to inform policy outcomes. Spring, Vice President of the Conservation and Science Department, has worked to expand the institution’s advocacy role. “Aquariums and other organizations can provide the information and inspiration to help millions of people to take action through their own choices and their vote,” she says.

A New Frontier for Advocacy

The sundry list of Yes on 67 supporters—from the Democrats of Monterey County to the Mayor of Santa Cruz and the Governor of California—is an extensive one. Not to mention all of the editorial boards that have supported the campaign… the L.A Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and San Jose Mercury News, to name a few.

This backing is imperative during the close race on the plastic bag ban—popular support hovers at 49 percent according to polling data published on Oct. 22 by Capital Weekly.

But the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s outreach may prove to be more powerful than all of the aforementioned endorsements.

Sociology professor Edward Walker from the University of California, Los Angeles says we have good reasons to expect that these types of institutions have a bigger influence than other grassroots membership groups like the Sierra Club or local political party headquarters.

“Aquariums have a very different kind of influence because they hold immense amount of respect from the community,” he says. “People can borrow form the respect that they have for this institution to inform their voting.”

Staff at the aquarium feel they have a mandate to educate the public about Yes on 67: a 2016 survey by Fairbank, Masli, Maulin, Metz & Associates showed the aquarium to be the second “most trusted voice” about plastic pollution in the state, with a 73% total trust rate, behind local school teachers (82%). The same survey showed the aquarium was the top trusted source for information about California ocean health, with a 79% total trust rate.

And in the political arena, that public trust is worth its weight in gold.

These blue buttons, miniature versions of the display above, are ubiquitous around the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Staff and volunteers alike have pinned them to shirts, belts, and lanyards.

These blue buttons, miniature versions of the display above, are ubiquitous around the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Staff have them pinned to shirts, belts, and lanyards. Photo by Aylin Woodward.

Will voters picture those bright blue Yes on 67 buttons or Makana’s doleful, pleading eyes as they cast their ballots? As with any political campaign, it’s hard to tell until Judgment Day rolls around, especially with 35 percent planning to vote no on the referendum according to the same October poll.

Regardless of the outcome in November however, the aquarium’s efforts with its Yes on 67 campaign are demonstrative of something even more than just caring about the future of California’s ocean. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has proven itself an avid political advocate when it comes to the plastic bag ban, and may yet set a precedent of its own: one where public educational institutions step up the public policy plate.

[This post first appeared in print at the San Jose Mercury News, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the Monterey Herald on Nov. 5. Huge thank you to Ken McLaughlin, regional news editor at the Mercury News, for his help with edits.]

Aylin Woodward is a science writer and biological anthropologist in the 2017 UC Santa Cruz Science Communication program. She is fairly certain she was a fish in a past life, which might explain her passion for public policy concerning ocean health and plastic pollution.