Wednesday, April 2, 2014

New England Aquarium Leadership Change

After 9 successful years at the New England Aquarium, CEO and President Bud Ris is turning the helm over to Nigella Hillgarth, head of San Diego’s Birch Aquarium.

With a record number of tourists visiting the New England Aquarium’s newly renovated Giant Ocean Tank, the completion of a $43-million capital campaign and the expansion of critical ocean research and conservation initiatives, New England Aquarium CEO and President Bud Ris has decided to step down after a successful nine-year tenure revitalizing Boston’s popular aquarium and marine conservation organization.

New England Aquarium CEO and President Bud Ris is stepping down after 9 years

Ris will be succeeded by Dr. Nigella Hillgarth, the longtime Executive Director of UC San Diego’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps, which is part of the world renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Dr. Nigella Hillgarth will assume the vacated leadership post at the New England Aquarium 

Aquarium board chairperson Donna Hazard said, “Bud’s legacy is best represented by his vision for the Aquarium both as an important cultural and educational force in Boston and also as a global leader dedicated to protecting the oceans.” She added, “We are thrilled to have found in Nigella an experienced aquarium leader and scientist who shares the Aquarium’s passion for the oceans and commitment to education, conservation and research.”

Since coming to the Aquarium in 2005, Ris has worked closely with the Aquarium’s immediate Past Chair Bill Burgess and COO Walter Flaherty to revitalize one of America’s most prominent aquariums. Together, they helped raise $43 million over a six-year period that rebuilt infrastructure, enhanced mission programs and developed popular new exhibits including the dramatic renovation of the Giant Ocean Tank last year, the opening of The Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank in 2011, and the construction of the spectacular harbor-side New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center and Harborwalk in 2009. The Aquarium also developed a state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar sea turtle hospital and animal care center in the old Quincy Shipyard.

Renovation of the Giant Ocean Tank included new exhibits, new lighting and
new education spaces at the top of the tank. 

Since its opening in 1969, the Aquarium has emphasized marine conservation and research. Under Ris’ leadership, the Aquarium was instrumental in helping to create one of the world’s largest marine protected areas in the Phoenix Islands of the central Pacific. Critically endangered right whales are enjoying a resurgence along the U.S. east coast, thanks in part to protection measures initiated by Aquarium whale researchers. The Aquarium’s sustainable seafood program has worked with some of the nation’s largest seafood companies and helped make sustainability become an integral business practice in the industry. Aquarium researchers have also benefited from the modernization of their laboratory for cutting edge work in assessing the impacts of noise and other human activities on the stress levels of marine animals.

Schooling fish on a reef of the Phoenix Islands Marine Protected Area in the Pacific Ocean

Ris, who is also a policy expert on climate change, served on several commissions advising both Mayor Menino and Governor Patrick on mitigation measures that can better prepare the city and the state for the impacts of sea level rise. Also over the past several years, the New England Aquarium has spearheaded a nationwide collaboration of aquariums and zoos to educate millions of visitors about climate change, its impact on the oceans and what to do about it. That project is funded by $6 million in grants from NSF and NOAA.

“Among the top accomplishments of our board supporters and staff during my tenure here has been restoring the Aquarium to good financial health and building a strong foundation for future growth and impact,” Ris stated.

Moving that legacy forward will be Irish native and Oxford-educated Hillgarth. She has led the San Diego aquarium since 2002 and prior to that headed up the largest bird park in the United States at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City. While at the Birch Aquarium, she spearheaded the renovation of exhibit halls and brought in regular changing exhibits including the award-winning “Feeling the Heat: The Climate Challenge.” She also dramatically increased private giving to an institution, that like the New England Aquarium, receives only a small amount of direct operating support from local or state governments.

The New England Aquarium exhibits three species of penguins and participates in species survival breeding plans.

Dr. Hillgarth is also a highly regarded zoologist and has conducted research on penguins and other birds. Her field work has brought her to the Arctic, Antarctica, Argentina, the Amazon, the Galapagos, Peru, India and Thailand. While at Scripps, she also serves as the assistant director for outreach in oceanography working to ensure that the institution’s mission and research are effectively communicated to the world.

"I'm very proud to have led Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, for nearly 12 years and the many successes that I shared with colleagues there, from exciting new exhibits to community outreach and conservation programs," said Hillgarth. "I now look forward to a wonderful new opportunity at the New England Aquarium."

As Ris wraps up his work over the next two months, he will travel to the remote, island nation of Kiribati in April to meet with government officials there to review progress in the management of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Ris will finish his turn at the Aquarium’s helm in May.

Dr. Hillgarth will begin working in Boston full time just after Memorial Day.

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