This month, the Maui Ocean Center celebrates its 20th anniversary. The aquarium, one of the largest in Hawaii, opened its doors in March 1998 (click here for info on its upcoming Mar. 18 “SeaLOVEbration”). Since then it’s steadily grown, though these days it seems to be changing–and expanding–faster than ever.
Tapani Vuori, originally from Finland, took over as General Manager of the Maui Ocean Center in 2015. He’s worked at the Ocean Center since 2002, when he was Director of Retail (he also spent a year since then working at the Pacific Whale Foundation). Though he spoke a great deal during our chat about marine ecosystems, his education is not in biology–he holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, which he earned at UCLA in 1987.
Rather than simply sit in his office and answer questions, Vuori agreed to chat while walking me around the Ocean Center. We talked about the good the aquarium has done, the not-so-good and the role it can play at a time when marine life around the world faces considerable threats.
Vuori talked a lot during our trip through the Ocean Center about the need to “stop the commercialization of natural resources.” This may seem a bit odd for a guy who runs an aquarium that charges admission, but it’s not entirely hypocritical. Indeed, Vuori repeatedly used the word “hypocritical” in our discussions on the Ocean Center’s actions, past, present and future. And he took pains to make clear that he understands the Ocean Center’s considerable responsibilities to the community, and the ocean life it celebrates.
Vuori said that Kahu Dane Maxwell blesses all the animals at the center (his grandfather, Charlie Maxwell, blessed the Maui Ocean Center when it first opened). Guests requesting recorded audio tours now have the option of listening to them in Hawaiian, and the center recently conducted an educational tour entirely in Hawaiian.
Trash cans throughout the center are made of repurposed shipping pallets. Vuori also said–knowing that his own beverage people would be displeased–the center is adding water fountains and encouraging people to bring their own water bottles, instead of purchasing plastic bottles of water at the snack bars (which are still for sale).
“This is all under our care,” Vuori told me as we walked into the center. “This is very important–we don’t own it. It’s all under our care. And up to 80 percent of the life here, we return to the ocean.”
We were in the Surge Zone, one of the first exhibits most people see when entering the park, when Vuori began talking about limu, the algae that’s considered a delicacy in Hawai‘i. “There used to be 200 different species of limu,” he said. “Now there are 11. I said, ‘let’s do a limu exhibit.”
This was a common refrain during our talk. Vuori radiates energy about marine life, and the part the Ocean Center can play in educating the public about the myriad threats it faces–coral bleaching, acidification, pollution, ocean warming, extinctions and so on. Sometimes, he found himself second-guessing the way he was articulating his priorities. Inside the Living Reef exhibit, Vuori said, “Sediment is the number one threat to marine ecosystems.” Then he quickly asked me to understand that he didn’t mean that he doesn’t think sunscreen is a problem. “We stopped selling sunscreen four years ago,” he said. “We recommend that people going to the beach wear long sleeves and hats. But if you have to use sunscreen, we say that they should use a mineral-based type–like zinc oxide–and use it minimally. Then wash it off at home.”
Of course, washing it off at home is better (hopefully) because it means sunscreen residue will go into a wastewater treatment facility before flowing into the ocean. To cover all its bases, Vuori said the Ocean Center is also working with the county’s storm drain stenciling program, to make sure people understand not to dump anything in the drains, which empty directly into the ocean.
“What is the carrying capacity for the tourist industry in Hawaii?” Vuori then asked me. “This is the conversation we need to have.”
He repeatedly mentioned the island nation of Palau, holding up its celebrated refocusing on on eco-tourism as a model of where he believes Maui needs to go. “They created a paradigm shift on Palau,” Vuori said. “And I mention this because it is considered a Third World country. If a Third World country can do this, why can’t we? We want to be part of that–we are part of the community.”
Though most visitors to the Ocean Center seem to gravitate to its giant shark tank–and the tunnel that gives people 240-degree views of the animals inside the tank–Vuori said the most important animals in the center are the corals.
“We put 1.2 million gallons of sea water into the park every day,” he said. It’s an open system, using salt water. “It’s a fairly rare setup we have here, but it allows us to have healthy coral colonies here. We have one of the largest displays of live endemic corals. Most of what we collect are living rock.”
Vuori knows that the term “living rock” is a popular misnomer, and back-tracked his comment almost instantly after saying it. “Of course, coral is not a rock,” he said. “It’s a beautiful, live animal.” The Ocean Center plans to develop an exhibit where viewers will be able to watch microscopic images of coral actually eating.
Because of the Ocean Center’s design, the coral on display are subject to the same ocean heating that’s leading to bleaching throughout the world. To combat this, Vuori said, they installed a chiller at the Ocean Center, which cooled the exhibit waters and slowed the bleaching.
Vuori said that when he came on as general manager in 2015, the Ocean Center was having “effluent issues” (this was one of a number of times during our chat when Vuori wondered out loud if he should say something that he had already started to say, only to nod and continue, adding that it was important that the Ocean Center remain transparent and accountable). He said that these issues help spur the hiring of an environmental director.
“You didn’t have an environmental director before then?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “In fact, we hired two environmental directors. They did a comprehensive chemical analysis of all the water. We basically cleaned house.”
According to Vuori, the results have been impressive. In fact, he said, they recently completed a scientific study on water quality in Ma‘alaea Harbor. The results show that the water in the harbor is actually cleaner now because of the Ocean Center. “It would create smell and algae issues if we stopped [operating],” Vuori said.
It’s great news, but there’s bad news on the horizon. The Maui Ocean Center operates under a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and in 2020 the allowed discharge levels will become more stringent. Vuori said the Ocean Center is currently under the interim levels, but something will have to change to meet the new, lower targets. Vuori said he’s gone to the state Department of Health (DOH) Clean Water Branch in hopes of offering solutions.
“They told us to write a watershed plan, get stakeholders together and they would get us money,” he said. Of course, with the EPA basically getting slashed by the Trump Administration, it’s hard to say what will happen by 2020. Still, something has to be done.
“There have to be government/private collaboration efforts,” he said. “The issues are bigger than the Maui Ocean Center.”
We were in the very dark Mid Reef exhibit when I asked Vuori why aquariums are needed. After a brief pause, he motioned me towards one of the walls. There, he started talking about the work of Rene Umberger, an environmentalist who founded For the Fishes, an organization that seeks to protect coral reefs and opposes the aquarium industry. Umberger made headlines in 2014 when, while filming damage to a reef off Kona, a diver collecting reef fish attacked her.
“We support the efforts of Rene Umberger,” Vuori. “Does this make us hypocrites? I don’t think so.” He then repeated his earlier statement that the Center returns about 80 percent of the life in its exhibits to the ocean.
Reached by phone a few days later, Umberger heaped lavish praise on Vuori. “I’ve seen a 180-degree turn since Tapani took over,” she told me. “They’re doing such good work. They’ve gone from not caring so much about the marine life they’ve captured to now wanting to reduce the numbers of animals they take from the wild. It’s really surprising, and really awesome.”
Umberger, who said that most aquariums around the world “have a terrible track record” in terms of taking fish and disturbing delicate eco-systems, holds Vuori and the Maui Ocean Center as “a model” of how the industry should now operate. “Given what’s happening to coral reefs worldwide, they have to do it,” Umberger said.
Back at the Ocean Center, Vuori gave a few more reasons to justify its work. It does a lot of marine education (“we should not monetize education,” he said). What’s more, he said the majority of people around Hawaii (and the world) don’t dive on reefs.
“If people don’t see the beauty of the ocean, how can expect them to care?” Vuori said.
For Vuori, aquariums like the Ocean Center represent a way for people to see ocean life up close, without damaging the marine ecosystem through aquarium collecting.
“Before we rush into pet stores, let’s have a conversation. Maybe there’s a better way to enjoy marine life.”
“We have made a public commitment: By 2020, 20 percent of our supply will come from sustainable sources.” Indeed, the Ocean Center is already working with UH Hilo and the Oceanic Institute on Oahu on aquaculture.
Located just outside the Ocean Center’s facilities that are open to the public, sits the Wet Lab. There, Head Curator John Gorman tends to a variety of tanks.
“There are 60 million tropical marine fish coming into the U.S. every year, primarily for home aquariums,” he said. “Forty percent of the fish were caught using cyanide.”
Basically, cyanide fishing works like this: someone snorkels down to the reef, sprays an area with cyanide using a squirt bottle, then scoops up the stunned fish with a hand net. “The practice began in the 1960s in the Philippines as a way to capture live reef fish for sale primarily to European and North American aquarium owners—a market now worth some $200 million a year,” according to Scientific American magazine.
Gorman said this causes three major problems. First, it damages the coral itself. Second, “for every fish that makes it to market, two don’t,” he said. And third, there are trace elements of cyanide left in the fish that eventually are sold to the public.
“Rene came to us,” Gorman said. “We’re doing an exhibit on this because visitors to aquariums are perhaps programmed to having an aquarium.”
“Does this make us hypocrites?” Vuori then asked Gorman.
“It could, yes,” Gorman said. “But we have to address this with an open mind. We believe there are solutions.”
For instance, Gorman said those wanting a home aquarium would do better by investing in fresh water fish, as opposed to salt water fish. Gorman also said that captive-bred fish are also part of the solution.
Gorman then walked me over to a tank filled with Yellow Tang. They were bred in captivity with the help of the Oceanic Institute on Oahu. It’s a complex procedure, requiring a wide variety of different types of plankton, but it is doable.
“We are not operating from a place of fear,” Vuori said. “We need to be engaged with the community. And we expect the community to hold us responsible.”
Just outside the Wet Lab is a large home aquarium tank filled with old fishing line, spider weights and other junk. It was all pulled from the ocean near the Ocean Center, and it all represents a threat to the marine ecosystem.
“Will this be part of a future exhibit?” I ask Vuori as we walk by.
“We’re working on it,” he said. They’re trying to figure out how to display it at the very end of the new Papahānaumokuākea exhibit–which sits at the end of the Ocean Center’s famous underwater tunnel through the shark tank–so that you have to walk through it to exit the center.
The Ocean Center is also working on a future exhibit on Kaho‘olawe. Or rather, they’re going to display a former Kaho‘olawe exhibit that once sat in the Smithsonian Institution, but has been gathering dust in a Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) warehouse for the past decade. The exhibit would go into the part of the Center that currently houses the dolphin and whale exhibits (those will eventually move to the new 139-seat Dome Theater that’s currently under construction). In any case, the whale exhibit itself is mostly dated–Vuori said he constantly sees kids putting their hands on the big view screens, expecting them to be just as interactive as virtually every other screen in their lives.
Vuori said that, once completed, the Dome Theater will allow those inside to see exactly what it would be like to be in the ocean with humpback whales. “It will become a landmark on Maui,” he said. He added that the theater will also include a door that leads directly to the parking lot, allowing community groups to use the theater without having to go through the rest of the Ocean Center.
Vuori also talked to me of other future plans, including a floating dock in Ma‘alaea Harbor that could accommodate the Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani voyaging canoe.
“I believe the State of Hawaii should have an allocation of harbor slips,” Vuori said. “If you have 50, then maybe one should be for cultural uses. It would create more of a sense of community.”
There are many dozens of exhibits and displays at the Ocean Center, but Vuori only paused in front of one and said he was proud of it. That was surprising, because the thing he wanted to highlight was a sign explaining to guests why there aren’t any dolphins at the Maui Ocean Center (among other reasons, a 2002 Maui County law forbids it).
“I wanted this sign,” Vuori told me. “When this went up, I started seeing our Trip Advisor reviews going up. Millennials are the generation that pays attention to things like this. Change is possible when this happens. It is our moral obligation to talk about these issues. Most people hunger for this. They want to help, but don’t know how.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photos: Sean M. Hower