Salt of the Sea

The Texas State Aquarium: pioneering aquatic rescue, research and innovation

By: Jessica Dusek
Photos by: Paul Marshall

Corpus Christi’s Texas State Aquarium dives deep – with vision and purpose. “Our goal is to engage every person” says Tom Schmid, president and CEO of the nonprofit. “They are going to learn about wildlife, yet are directly supporting conservation just by visiting.”

The local tourist attraction pulls 75 percent of patrons from Texas metro area including San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. In 2013, the aquarium launched the $50 million Capital Campaign project to fund their Caribbean Journey Exhibit. Capturing 80 percent of their campaign targets, to date, they are ahead of schedule. Plans will be in place for the final $10 million by January 2016.

What drives the innovation of Texas State Aquarium? Schmid’s genuine interest in aquatic research and wildlife conservation. The South Florida native earned his master’s in biological sciences from the University of Central Florida and began his work at Sea World.

His enthusiasm for aquatic restoration is contagious as he describes his upcoming trip with the Harte Research Institute to Flowers Gardens National Marine Sanctuary – 100 miles off the coast of Galveston. “It’s one of the most pristine coral reefs; few scuba divers get out there,” he describes. “In August, the corals spawn and expel their eggs. It’s a magical thing to watch.” Not your average hands-on experience for most CEOs.

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The Journey
For the Texas State Aquarium, it took time to build its present-day momentum. Established in 1990, the organization faced obstacles locally in regard to city planning. “It was a pretty ambitious project; the economy wasn’t as strong as it had been,” Schmid describes of the tail-end of the 1980s oil downturn.

Throughout the years, new exhibits gained appeal. “Touch tanks allowed visitors to become familiar with otherwise suspicious creatures such as the cownose ray,” Schmid explains. “They are not menacing animals; they have an important role in the environment.” The focus is to not only to inform the public, but also engage their interest in aquatic life cycles and the impact of connectivity within a greater eco-system.

In the mid-1990s, customer interest showed a decline. “Attendance dropped from 600,000 to less than 400,000,” Schmid says. This sparked their 1998 jellyfish exhibit, demonstrating a 10 percent increase in attendance. Next, they introduced seahorses from around the world. Not long after, they opened a section for sea turtles, river otters and their dolphin exhibits. In terms of membership, “our bottle-nosed dolphin program really accelerated our growth,” Schmid says. “People are fascinated by dolphins.”

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By 2001, the nonprofit saw a dramatic change in the patron’s average visit – initially 45 minutes extended to two hours. Expansion to outdoor exhibits featured alligators, hawks and eagles, not to mention the Splash Park drew member interest. Growth indicated $5 million in revenue per year to $10 million over 15 years.

Research and Guiding the Next Generation
“Since 2005, we’ve treated and released more than 1,000 animals that we have rehabilitated either back into the wild or to another accredited zoo or aquarium – primarily shorebirds, hawks, eagles, other birds of prey, also marine turtles, manatees and dolphins,” Schmid says.

A large part of carrying their rehabilitation efforts is focusing on future careers for today’s youth. “One of the most exciting developments that has happened over the last 18 months: We were thrilled to receive a $1 million grant from Flint Hills Resources to launch a new center focused on STEM education,” Schmid says of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math emphasis. “We can’t just rely on people being inspired; that’s why we developed the center for STEM education to get students focused.”

Obstacles developed fortitude. “When we started this fundraising program, there were some folks that thought this project was a bit ambitious for Corpus Christi,” Schmid explains. The significant amount of funding has come from all around the state of Texas. “I think that has helped our ability to fundraise,” Schmid says.

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He credits his team: “We have talented fundraising professionals, along with our board of trustees that are very active.” Alongside 50 trustees, “they help open doors to meet with foundations and corporations,” Schmid explains. “We were also very fortunate to have received state funding in the last legislative cycle. Our local delegation was extraordinarily helpful.”

Their $50 million Caribbean Wing will be attached to their Gulf of Mexico building. Conceptual designs and cost estimates for program development took effect, and by summer 2014, they raised 50 percent of their target. “We knew this was level we would need to begin construction,” Schmid says.

Other emerging programs include the Wildlife Care Conservation and Research (WCCR) fund. “We typically budget more revenue than expenses; we operate the aquarium in a fiscally responsible manner,” says Schmid of reinvesting in research-based projects.

He refers to previous projects that brought education to the public: “oyster restoration, helping with sea turtles, addressing problems in gulf and helping animals important to the Gulf and Texas. At the end of the year, we have net income left over. We’ve now developed a grant program for researchers. We’ve given $200,000 out of that program so far.”

Redistributed grant dollars have also contributed to their collaborative efforts with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, making a direct impact through research. One project in the last year includes support for Dr. Greg Stuntz, an endowed chair at the Harte Research Institute, whose work includes tagging and studying sharks in the gulf. “This is one example of a dozen projects,” Schmid says. “We’ve helped fund his work over the last two years.”

On the Horizon
A bright future is in store for the Texas State Aquarium, as they continue to engage local and statewide audiences. In March, they launched a strategic planning process that will take them beyond the Caribbean wing and will guide growth over the next five to 10 years.

“I can tell you that we have a lot of exciting things planned beyond the Caribbean additions, including a major renovation to our existing Gulf of Mexico program,” Schmid says. Future developments for the program include possible aqua culture additions such as “growing corals, propagating reef fish,” according to Schmid. “Our goal is to finish that strategic planning process at the end of the year.”

For more information about the Texas State Aquarium, please visit www.texasstateaquarium.org.

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