The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

June 10, 2008

We can either have plastic toy sharks or real sharks, not both.

The above quote sounds almost like the tagline for this blog, doesn’t it? In fact, it is from a letter to the Monterey Bay Aquarium written by Erica Etelson, a friend of one of my Green Sangha friends. Erica visited the aquarium with her family a few months ago and was disappointed by all the plastic and other petroleum-based items for sale in the gift shop, as well as food packaging in the cafe.

Now, we’re used to seeing gift shops at zoos and museums. It’s one of the ways these places bring in cash to fund their educational work. However, the mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is special. Their purpose is to educate the public about the health of our oceans. They are the folks who publish the Seafood Watch sustainable seafood guides each year. And through their Center for the Future of the Oceans, they “champion policies that conserve and restore threatened marine wildlife on the California coast and in the northern Pacific, including the southern sea otter, sharks, tunas and sea turtles.” So to Erica, it was ironic that they would offer for sale so many items that are actually contributing to the sickness of marine eco-systems.

My Green Sangha group saw the irony in the situation too when we read Erica’s letter and the response she received, and so as a group action we all handwrote our own letters to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Below I have reprinted the full exchange: Erica’s initial letter, the response from the gift shop manager, and Erica’s follow-up letter. Included is the contact info for the aquarium gift shop manager if after reading this exchange you feel inspired to send your own message.

—– Original Message —–
From: Erica Etelson
To: ; ; ;
Sent: Friday, April 04, 2008 3:14 PM
Subject: ocean-friendly concessions

Dear M-Bay Aquarium Friends:

My family recently enjoyed its first trip to the aquarium and were particularly impressed with your efforts to educate guests about sustainable seafood–efforts that were in evidence on the menus of several of the local seafood restaurants. The flush toilets are great too!

But I have to tell you how dismayed I was by the volume of petroleum-based items for sale in your gift shop and cafe. Plastic toys, synthetic clothing, plastic beverage bottles and food containers–how ironic it was to see a display of books all on the theme of averting climate catastrophe right next to a rack of fleece jackets made in Guatemala.

You folks surely know better than I do how much damage plastic debris and the burning of fossil fuels do to the health of the oceans. We can either have plastic toy sharks or real sharks, not both.

I’m actually writing a book about how to transition to greener lifestyle choices so, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to go into further details about some of the problems I observed and can even come down again and do a more complete audit. I know how devoted you are to your mission of protecting marine species and so I hope you will take my comments in the spirit of promoting our mutual goals. If the aquarium blazed the trail on greening its operations, surely other museums and aquariums would follow, not to mention the thousands of visitors who would receive a firsthand education.


Erica Etelson
Berkeley, CA


—– Original Message —–
From: Andrew Fischer
To: Erica Etelson
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 3:58 PM
Subject: Monterey Bay Aquarium Guest Feedback Response

Dear Ms. Etelson

My name is Andrew Fischer , General Manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Gift and Bookstore. I received your comment regarding us offering products that are manufactured in other countries and therefore may contradict the message of conservation, and I wanted to get back to you with a response.

I personally appreciate feedback from guests like you. We can only improve our operation with comments such as these.

The concerns you raised regarding the origin of our products is a challenge for my team on many levels as we strive to provide our 1.8 Million visitors a special selection of quality items at an affordable price.

Our buying team is addressing the concerns that you noted by reevaluating each category in our stores. What we face is that in many areas (such as giftware, key chains, mugs, magnets, apparel, plush, and many toys) there are no options to purchase at the quantity, quality, and selection as what overseas production offers.

In fact, almost all of the books we offer on the topic of environmental concerns are printed on non-recycled paper and in other countries. If we chose to offer only domestically printed book publications, our selection would be minimal at best.

My staff and I are prepared to make a major shift in our business practices in certain categories, but it will be a challenge to do this overnight. We are working with our vendors on sourcing products from within North America , but as of this moment, we are limited.

We will be looking to offer a consistent message by presenting a permanent Think Green section of the Main Gift and Bookstore. This will officially start on Earth Day (April 22nd). The items will include many of the books you noted, as well as organic cotton shirts, actual trees that you can plant, recycled pencils and glass, as well as other aquarium themed recycled items. We will add to this department over the coming months.

We are also very proud to be the exclusive location to offer an Organic Plush Penguin (made with Soy and the fiber from the Kapok seed). This hypoallergenic Penguin is however manufactured in Indonesia . The Penguin is a great example of the challenges I noted above. No US manufacturer of quality plush exists, let alone one that would go to this length to produce an earth friendly product.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s mission is to inspire conservation of the oceans, as well as to educate on environmental and ecological concerns. The Gift and Bookstore helps contribute funds to achieve this mission, and should follow the path set-forth by the dedicated staff and founders. It is my job to find options, and to take the right direction to better match this mission.

I thank you for your focus on this very important area of our operation.

If you have any further questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me at 831-645-4945 or via my e-mail at

I have also sent a copy of this response to Ed Prohaska , our Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Enterprise Development.

Sincerely yours,

Andrew Fischer
General Manager of Merchandising
Monterey Bay Aquarium
831-648-4945 P
831-648-4989 F


—– Original Message —–
From: Erica Etelson
To: Andrew Fischer
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 12:36 PM
Subject: Re: Monterey Bay Aquarium Guest Feedback Response

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for your response. I do understand the challenge you’re facing and am glad to hear of the initiation of the Think Green section. But I still want to challenge the assumption that the aquarium’s mission includes providing your visitors with affordable products. I think that’s Wal-Mart’s mission. The aquarium’s mission, on the other hand, is to promote the protection of marine life by educating the public about the dire environmental threats to the oceans. I don’t see how encouraging your visitors to buy petroleum-based products manufactured by exploited workers in countries with lax environmental standards and shipped across the globe is anything other than a direct contradiction of your mission.

Part of environmental education includes challenging consumers to forego their entitlement to products that have cheap price tags but come with hidden environmental costs. It is far better to buy nothing than to buy a product whose manufacture damaged the environment. I imagine that the bookstore provides the aquarium with needed revenue but I would guess that that portion of the budget could be made up for by a fundraising campaign that highlights the aquarium’s downsizing of the bookstore to a small, 100% eco-friendly selection of items. I think donors would step up to bat to help the aquarium avoid the hypocrisy of selling plastic fish and other items that often wind up as ocean debris that kill real fish.

I’d also encourage you to inventory the items sold in your cafe, most of which are non-organic and many of which are excessively packaged in plastic. There is absolutely no need for plastic water bottles or beverages of any kind. Nutritious, organic food and drinks should be sold on washable or at least bio-degradable plates and cups. Chips can be purchased in bulk and sold by the handful or by weight to avoid the packaging of single-serving snacks. There’s a lot to look at here, and I hope you’ll take the bull by the horns.

Erica Etelson

Besides being a kindred spirit, Erica Etelson is a terrific writer whose articles have appeared in the SF Chronicle. The world needs more people like her.

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Catherine Todd
13 years ago

I can’t believe someone is objecting to “a rack of fleece jackets made in Guatemala” being sold in an Aquarium Gift Shop. I live part-time in Guatemala and work very, very hard to market the beautiful hand-made goods produced in this beautiful country which is one of the few ways they have to educate their children and feed their families.

Why shouldn’t products from around the world be sold in museums, aquariums and zoos that present animals, plants and minerals from around the world? If you want only “organic” products, then you will have to take a hard look at everything that supposedly goes into making and marketing an “organic” product. I’m all for organic, but the lax and unsupported claims by many – including American-made organic products, makes me question the validity of many of those products.

World trade is important. Everyone deserves a chance to sell their products and no one should object to products from other countries “being made by exploited workers and being sold next to books on going green.” We live in a world economy, like it or not. We are one world. The only exploited workers I know personally are the coffee pickers for the so-called “organic, fair trade” coffee growers. If you ever knew what really goes on in the “fair trade” movement and the lack of oversight, it would curl your hair. You’d need a budget and staff as large as the FDA to oversee this kind of thing in any kind of practical and real way. Until then, get rid of plastic as much as you can, but let people in third world countries make a living from their beautifully made hand-crafted items.

15 years ago

Sorry to be weighing in a bit late on the conversation.

Is there an inherent paradox in being a conservation organization when you don’t live up to your highest ideals in every aspect of your business practices? Of course, there is. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we wrestle with that paradox every day and do our best to improve our practices step by step. We’re never going to get to perfect. But we’ll keep getting better.

To the comments about the merchandise we sell. Yes, we carry products that Erica and others criticize. We also carry items made out of organic, sustainable & renewable materials. We use recycled plastic in other products (the “fleece from Guatemala” being one example), and offer rainforest-friendly plush penguins and sea otters made of kapok and organic dyes.

We try to offer items that are designed to last and to be kept – not discarded. In fact, we’re criticized by visitors for not having enough affordable (read: cheap plastic) souvenirs on sale.

Our buyers work with suppliers to minimize packaging – both what you see on the shelf and what they wrap it in to ship it to us. In that sense, we’re changing the industries that supply us, so we can have an impact beyond our walls.

It’s fair to question whether we should sell anything at all. But we know that kids learn and remember marine conservation messages through things like plush toys.

There’s a tradeoff, and we try to balance the educational value of what we carry – and the revenue that sales contribute to our conservation & education programs – against the environmental footprint of the products. It’s not a perfect calculation, and I can’t disagree with anyone who argues for a simpler life with less stuff.

As for our food service: Bon Appetit Management Co. is our partner and deserves a LOT more credit than it’s been given here. It’s an industry leader with its low-carbon diet. It buys local (and organic) for us and for hundreds of other clients nationwide. It was the first to adopt Seafood Watch guidelines company-wide, and took that commitment to its own parent company, Compass Group North America — the largest food service company in the U.S. and Canada.

Its “plastic” containers are all made from compostable vegetable-based materials – and we do sort and compost them from our trash containers, along with other organic kitchen waste. Ditto for the small amount of “plastic” cutlery they have available. It’s made from potato starch and is collected for composting.

I couldn’t disagree more with the folks who say the food is junk. It’s outstanding by any standards, and the kids’ meals are healthier than most – and always offer fruit as an alternative to French fries. Bon Appetit is cutting back on water and other beverages sold in plastic bottles. It’s eliminated all imported bottled water.

Ken Peterson, Communications Director
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Lynn from
15 years ago

Love it! She’s a gal after my own heart. I’ve had the same thoughts when visiting the Washington National Zoo. There are exhibits all over talking about the dangers of plastic to marine life – even cases showing plastic that has washed up in the ocean – yet they sell the same crap.

Maybe I’ll get inspired and even quote directly from her letter when I write mine. It’s the same issue and it’s happening all over the country.

Paula and Frog
15 years ago

I am pleased to hear about the plush penguin. My best friend is such an animal – he was born in San Diego he tells me. He and I meet and discuss topics of interest to all stuffed animals on Hope to see all the new plush penguins there.

My friend, called Peng, travels a lot but I don’t. I have to sit on my exercise ball all day – see my blog of explanation. I am jealous of Penguins – they have so much more freedom than us poorer plush.

Paula (a stuffed duck) and Frog (a stuffed frog)

terrible person
15 years ago

The new California Academy of Sciences, reopening in Golden Gate Park in September in what is advertised as a really green building, will have an aquarium. Maybe this will be a good alternative to the Monterey one. Maybe if we all contact the Cal Academy BEFORE they open (at, or (415) 321-8201), we can prevent them from selling plastic tchotchkes in the first place.

Beth and I stopped getting new plush toys a while ago, in part because we had more than enough already, and partly because we decided to lavish our affection on the kittens instead. We have however adopted a few stuffed animals we find on the street or in resale stores.

15 years ago

Reading these letters reminds me of my letter to Sainsburys (a supermarket chain in the UK) suggesting other packaging for their bakery items than a plastic bag. I don’t understand why the people who respond to these letters don’t properly read and understand the comment being made before responding.

Maybe when we write letters to companies like this we should only mention one aspect and nothing else in case the company ends up getting distracted.

Needless to say I was not happy with my response from Sainsburys and continue to confuse the cashiers when I buy my pastry items from the bakery without any wrapping on them as the only choice is a plastic bag. There aren’t even any napkins.

Keep up the good work and I am certain continual badgering will make a change.

15 years ago

We are regular visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I love the conservation work the organization does on the daily bases. So it’s very disappointing that they show how damaging plastic bags are (we’ve been quite a few such shows) while selling plastic toys with virtually no redeeming values. I think it is time for all to us to write to Andrew and above.

15 years ago

What a great letter! It’s too bad Andrew didn’t seem to get it. You would hope that the aquarium employees would be more tuned in than that, but he seemed to only hear what he thought he was going to hear, not what she actually said. Regardless, thanks so much for posting this valuable exchange.

heather t
15 years ago

AWESOME! We went to Sea World in Orlando last winter, and I was shocked that the postcards (non-recycled, sadly) we purchased could have come with a big ol’ turtle-choking plastic bag.

I plan to swipe the outline of this letter to use in my own letter to Sea World (yeah, it’s been brewing a long time but better late than never)!

Anarres Natural Health
15 years ago

Here’s my go:

Andrew Fischer
General Manager of Merchandising
Monterey Bay Aquarium
831-648-4945 P
831-648-4989 F

I have read your exchanges with Erica Edelson, as these appear on the blog Fake Plastic Fish
with interest.

I am a mother of two, and a health practitioner who founded the End of The World of Plastics Campaign 2008.

You heard Erica regarding goods manufactured overseas, but did not respond to her concerns regarding offering plastic, and plastic packaged items.

As a mother, I know that my children inevitable beg for souvenirs, and I choose to offer them consumable or other responsible choices.
Sometimes, however, others buy my children souvenirs – often plastic figurines, key chains or “tchatchka”.
These items are discarded fairly quickly and we both know that, tragically, they end up in landfill or in our oceans, poisoning and choking wildlife for the next 575 years.

As a health practitioner, I help many men and women who struggle with endocrine disruption, another deadly impact of plastics consumption, as the chemicals pre and post consumer enter our water table and foods.

I beg you to revitalize your mission and develop a new vision for your gift shop – one that develops local, environmentally responsible goods. An artist friend of mine crafts clay figures and pendant reproductions for the Royal Ontario Museum. Developing similar, local relationships and rejecting conventional plastic “souvenirs” could enhance your relationship to the community and to our world.


Tracey TieF
Certified Natural Health Practitioner

DIY Natural Cleaning Party!
Thursday, June 12, 5:30 to 7:30 pm
True Human Rights Action Centre, 624 Yonge Street, 2nd fl. above Green is Black

Cost: Suggested donation of $10, plus $5 per product you come home with. RSVP.

TRUE Human Rights Centre is hosting a Do-It-Yourself green cleaning party in partnership with Anarres Natural Health and Women’s Voices for the Earth. You’ll go home with your very own set of easy-to-make cleaning products (plus recipes) that have been tested for effectiveness and are good for your health and the environment!

Bring empty spritzer and squeeze bottles for yourself and to share.

15 years ago

Mr. Fischer’s response to Erica Etelson’s excellent letter reminds me of the meeting you attended at the law firm where Michael works, which was on the subject of the negative effects of the disposal of plastic water bottles on the environment, and where plastic bottles of water were served to the attendees.

That sentence was not easy to write.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

If you would rather mail a letter than send an email, here is the address:

Andrew Fischer
General Manager of Merchandising
Monterey Bay Aquarium
866 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93040

I will post it on the actual blog entry as soon as Blogger decides to cooperate. It’s giving me fits today.

15 years ago

I have also visited the aquarium and and left with disbelief at the marketing and the Food!!! It was terrible, low quality, over packaged junk. I was so bummed that in an area with a long growing season and TONS of local organics, that they wouldn’t offer a more local-fare. That being said, I certainly didn’t write and letter and I think that I will now. I wonder if offering a photograph or something of the like would be good enough for people set on purchasing crap from the gift shop? It doesn’t make sense to sell any of that stuff and even the recycled items come with a cost that doesn’t seem worth it in the name conservation…thinking while typing, obviously.

15 years ago

Thanks for posting the letter – what a great model – hopefully we can all adopt the language and become proactive in our own neighborhoods (which, for me, includes all the Smithsonian museums)….

15 years ago

She’s very articulate. I don’t think Andrew really gets it – he’s not thinking green. Erica makes an excellent point about foregoing the entitlement to cheap products whose manufacture may damage the environment or be bad for the workers.

Andrew just seems to be focused on “not made in the USA.”

I’d like to write a letter, too – being a big fan of the M-bay Aquarium… but I’m not sure exactly how to go about it.


15 years ago

What about making those plush toys, etc from recycled plastic? The more that we push the market for recycled plastic, the more profitable recycling plastic becomes, the more people do it. Currently the only thing that is profitable to recycle is aluminum. We have to start pushing the other markets I think.

The only thing I disagree about is the books. I wouldn’t be opposed to more expensive books so that they can be made using recycled paper, but I wouldn’t support fewer books if that’s not possible. Because while I think the impact of a keychain is fairly limited, the impact of a book can go beyond its carbon emissions.