Jerry Schubel, the president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach who led the aquarium’s $53-million expansion, announced Friday that he is stepping down.
Schubel, 83, who joined the aquarium in 2002, said he plans to retire when its board of directors finds a replacement.
“We’ve created a robust, strong and exciting aquarium — one of the best in the nation,” he said. “I achieved everything I was hired to do.”
“My retirement has been in the works for over a year,” he added. “My future plans include writing a book on restoration of coastal environments, which is the subject I got my PhD in.”
Aquarium Board Chair Kathleen Eckert said, “Jerry Schubel’s visionary leadership has created a lasting legacy for the Aquarium and for the city of Long Beach.”
“We are incredibly grateful for his hard work,” she said, “and for his unwavering commitment. He leaves us well-positioned to successfully carry out our mission for years to come.”
The $120-million aquarium opened in 1998 with great fanfare as Long Beach attempted to transform itself from a gritty naval shipyard into a regional tourism attraction.
It was designed to be a cornerstone of a waterfront retail and amusement complex that would lure visitors to the city as it struggled with the closure of the shipyard and the loss of about 50,000 jobs.
Within a few years, the aquarium confronted complaints of dwindling attendance, crowded rooms, lousy food and boring exhibits. The problems left the aquarium unable to meet its $117-million bond obligation, which was to be paid from attendance revenue. The city refinanced the debt in 2001 to lower payments.
After Schubel came aboard, the aquarium shifted direction.
“We want to be the master storyteller of the Pacific, and the real story” is how humans’ relationship to the Pacific has changed, Schubel said at the time. In a relatively short few hundred years, he added, “we have gone from having an insignificant impact on the Pacific and watershed to dominating the largest ecosystem on the planet, and we want to tell that story.”
The aquarium renewed efforts to expand exhibit space and boost attendance. It made news by opening its “Shark Lagoon” exhibit. It also received an award from the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization that accredits facilities that have met rigorous standards, for being the first facility in the world to successfully breed the bizarre creatures known as weedy sea dragons.
Attempting to diversify a largely white customer base, the aquarium launched a series of annual “cultural festivals” featuring the foods, dances and celebrations of various ethnic groups rooted in surrounding communities.
It also hosts public forums where scientists, policy makers and top ocean explorers discuss potential solutions to the troubles facing the world’s seas, including climate change, acidification, pollution, aquaculture and overfishing.
A decade after it opened, the aquarium ranked among the most popular in the nation, pulling in 1.4 million people a year from throughout Southern California. Aquarium revenues in 2007 were about $39 million, a 26% increase over 2006.
Aquarium attendance in 2018 was 1.7 million people. Revenue in 2018 was $43.5 million, an increase of 9% over the previous year, officials said.
Earlier this year, the aquarium opened a new $53-million wing, Pacific Visions, featuring an “immersive theater” with a high-definition projection system. Its exhibits include an acrylic tank housing 1,200 federally threatened delta smelt acquired from a UC Davis research hatchery.
“Jerry had a great ride and now he wants to slow down a little and do some writing,” said Doug Otto, a founding board member of the aquarium.
“These transitions are always a little scary,” Otto added. “Especially when the departing leader is as strong and visionary as Jerry.”