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Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute Stewards Human and Marine Life

A scuba diver explores the ocean amid a school of fish.

By Annelise Jolley

Covering two-thirds of our planet, the ocean can be mistaken for an inexhaustible resource. But a rapidly-growing human population means a proportional increase in our use of oceans for food, jobs, recreation, and transportation. Our planet’s oceans require stewardship in order to thrive.

Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute exists to conserve San Diego’s local waters, as well as to promote a symbiotic relationship between human and marine life.

“A lot of people think anything humans do in the oceans is negative,” says Don Kent. “[But] sometimes these interactions are actually quite beneficial.”

Kent sees examples of beneficial interactions on a daily basis through his work as CEO of San Diego’s Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. While it’s true that humans have a history of disrupting the ocean’s health—from overfishing to entangling marine mammals—we also have the ability to support thriving waters.

Since 1963, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute has conserved and renewed marine life to support both human and animal populations. The Institute’s local team of world-class scientists conduct research here in San Diego and around the world to better understand how human activities impact marine mammals and their environments. The Institute neighbors SeaWorld Park, making it something of a scientist’s dream with ready access to animals like killer whales, dolphins, sea turtles and penguins.

Dolphins jumping out of the water.

This proximity to wildlife allows Institute scientists to perform research that would otherwise be nearly impossible, such as testing the hearing of killer whales. By discovering what frequencies killer whales can hear, the Institute was able to educate Alaskan fishermen who had been plagued by whales devouring their catch. Fishermen stopped advertising their presence to nearby orcas by quieting their boats, and fed their communities instead. This breakthrough also encouraged the whales to maintain natural hunting behaviors.

“The more we understand about animals’ ecology, behavior and physiology, the more we can do to protect them in the wild,” says Kent. “We approach these things without a front-end bias and try to find the best solution—letting humans and animals share the environment together in a way that’s beneficial to both.”

Locally, this means addressing the declining population of white seabass. The Institute’s mission to “return to the sea some measure of the benefits derived from it” plays out literally through the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program, which returns seabass into San Diego’s waters. In a 22,000 square-foot hatchery in Carlsbad, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute has reared and released over two million juvenile seabass for regional commercial and recreational fisheries benefit. Kent calls the facility, built on lagoon property donated by San Diego Gas & Electric, “a model hatchery.” He adds, “It’s something we’ve shown to thousands of people over the years, [teaching] them how to grow seafood to replenish wild stocks.”

A student examines a juvenile white seabass in a classroom.

As an extension of the marine hatchery program, southern California grade schools participate in the Seabass in the Classroom program. Made possible with support from San Diego Gas & Electric, Seabass in the Classroom exposes approximately 1,000 students each school year to fish husbandry, water quality, and ocean stewardship. Students raise juvenile white seabass before releasing them into local waters. Through the curriculum, students learn to sustain natural resources, gain personal ownership in the health of their coastal ecosystem, and discover the importance of water quality for animal, plant, and human health.

The program is designed to raise up a new generation of marine scientists who will steward San Diego’s marine ecosystems. These young scientists are formed not by reading textbooks about fish and local ecology, but rather by being immersed in the hands-on scientific inquiry of laboratory activities, field research, data collection and analysis necessary for actually raising white seabass for release into the wild. “If you really want to affect the future, we ought to be working with the people who are the future, and those are the kids,” Kent says. In a time when budget cuts mean fewer field trips and out-of-classroom learning opportunities, Seabass in the Classroom brings the ocean to students.

“Growing up in San Diego and having [scientific] education opportunities resulted in me and my colleagues at the Institute having an interest in marine science,” says Kent. “If we can get one or two kids in the class to go into marine science as a result of the Seabass program, then I think that’s really neat.”