Aquarium's coral reef exhibit also delivers a message


Neon educational panels near the Atlantic coral reef exhibit explain to visitors how reefs are formed -- and how they are being destroyed.

Aquarium officials hope that the knowledge will transform curious visitors into concerned visitors -- who will then participate in something called Project ReefAction.

The project, which has research, educational and fund-raising components, is part of the aquarium's efforts to extend the parameters of its mission beyond merely delighting and educating the public.

"We are a public display facility and we want to educate, inform and stimulate our 1.5 million visitors [annually] to get involved," said Chris Andrews, senior director of biological programs.

"Our aim is to show them why coral reefs are important, what are the negative impacts of what is occurring and what they can do to help," he said.

Members of the public are asked to give money to the cause: A large "parking meter" will be displayed into which visitors are urged "to deposit their change to encourage change," said Mr. Andrews. When the handle is turned, bits of reef trivia will be displayed.

Donations will go to the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. Money will be used for research and to preserve a coral reef in a 200,000-acre Dominican Republic national park called Parque Del Este, Mr. Andrews said.

Continuing programs there include teaching divers and tourists how to behave ecologically responsibly while visiting the reefs, said Peter Cleary, a spokesman for the group. Later, scientists from the Dominican Republic and the aquarium will participate in an exchange program.

The parking meter idea, which Mr. Cleary decribed as "wildly popular," has been used by the aquarium before. About four years ago, a similar meter was installed on behalf of the rain forests. Since then, said Mr. Andrews, the aquarium has collected $180,000 that has been used to preserve 5,000 acres of Central American rain forest.

Project ReefAction also includes programs and classes held at the aquarium. There will be field trips to coral reefs off the coast of Florida and Mexico, as well as classes for SCUBA divers who want to be able to identify species of coral if they come upon them in the wild.

In addition, as part of their conservation efforts, aquarium curators and biologists are trying to breed several kinds of fish, including high hats, grunts and neon gobies.

Not everyone is convinced that these combination animal exhibit and education efforts work.

Some conservation and animal rights groups say that keeping any fish or animal in captivity is cruel and flies in the face of environmentally responsible behavior.

"This isn't something being done to save the fishes -- it is being done for profit and where profits are concerned, corners are cut," said Lisa Lange, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a Washington-based animal rights group. "Any steps they are taking now to educate the public is a knee-jerk reaction to the true and valid concerns of the advocates."

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