Conservation & Science

Honoring Congressman Sam Farr’s ocean legacy

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A surfbird hunts for prey in a Monterey Bay tide pool.

As a kid in the 1940s, Sam Farr used to frequent the tide pools on Carmel Beach, exploring and playing with the multitude of colorful creatures that lived there. But when he returned as an adult with his young daughter in tow, the tide pools weren’t quite how he remembered them.

“Not a single animal was there,” he recalls. “Not a sea urchin, not a sea anemone, not a hermit crab.”

The experience added to Farr’s already deep-seated belief that ocean health is crucial to the well-being of our planet and ourselves. First as a California State Assemblyman from 1980-1993, and then as a U.S. Congressman from 1993 to the present, he acted on that belief by creating state and federal legislation to protect our ocean and coast, and to support ocean research along Monterey Bay.

Now, after more than 40 years of public service, Farr is returning from Washington, D.C. to his home in Carmel, California to, in his words, “become a full-time grandfather” to his daughter Jessica’s children, Ella and Zachary.

On Dec. 1, 2016, Monterey Bay Aquarium honored Sam Farr’s lifelong contributions to ocean conservation at a reception for community leaders and philanthropists.

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The world is moving forward on climate

From Nov. 7-18, 2016, delegates from the world’s nations gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. With the Paris Agreement—the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—now in effect, nations focused on how to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s atmospheric temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s director of science, attended the conference to address how carbon emissions affect ocean health. Here, Kyle shares his reflections about the conference.


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A souk selling potpourri, spices, and yarn in the Medina district of Marrakech.

The skylines of Marrakech are framed by stark contrasts. There is the adobe-pink Medina, the ancient city and the heart of Marrakech; modern hotels and bustling urban roundabouts; and the massive, snow-capped Atlas Mountains that hold back the Sahara Desert. The people of Marrakech are mostly of Berber ethnic heritage, and the locals I met were exceedingly conversational, kind and curious.

Nearly 30,000 delegates, speakers, students and emissaries from scores of countries passed through security checkpoints to the tent city where the COP22 meetings were held. We were on the outskirts of town, in a district called Bab Ighli, next to extensive royal olive groves. The tent “rooms”—which became increasingly hot as the day went on,  with crowds of up to a few hundred people per room—were appropriately named after the seas of the world: Arctic, Mediterranean, Caribbean.

Following the landmark agreement at last year’s U.N. climate change conference in Paris (COP21), the Marrakech conference was expected to be a quieter, less exciting gathering focused on the business of implementing the Paris accord. But a few things happened on the way to Marrakech that elevated its importance.

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Breeding seahorses to conserve their wild cousins

The courtship of Pacific seahorses begins with an awkward dance.

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A close up of a Pacific seahorse (Hippocampus ingens) in the ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge special exhibit.

Over the course of several days, a female and a male seahorse will start to mimic each other’s movements. As their synchronization improves, the couple perfects a routine that involves circling each other, holding tails and swimming upward in unison.

“Their courtship dance involves going up the water column, so they need a few feet of vertical space,” says Jennifer O’Quin Anstey, senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Her responsibilities include looking after a suitably tall holding tank, in a back room with soft light, behind the aquarium’s ¡Viva Baja! exhibit.

Nearby, smaller tanks are full of baby seahorses. They look like miniature versions of the adults—but begin their lives a dark hue. Their color alternates between black and yellow as they mature.

“People kept telling me how difficult it was to rear them, which only made me more determined to do it,” Jenn says.

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Marine protected areas: a smart approach

Last August, U.S. President Barack Obama created (what was then) the largest protected area on Earth.

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Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo by NOAA

Obama’s executive order, which came after numerous public meetings, more than quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The 500,000-square-mile area, surrounding a chain of northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is now protected from commercial fishing and resource extraction.

The monument hosts an abundance and diversity of wildlife, much of it unique to the area. Its expansion was an important step toward protecting more of the global oceans, and showing the world that the United States is committed to doing its part in marine protection.

While Papahānaumokuākea boasts a wide variety of ocean life, marine biodiversity—according to a new study co-authored by Kyle Van Houtan, director of science at Monterey Bay Aquarium—is even higher in some other parts of the ocean.

His paper affirms that marine protected areas are an effective tool for protecting ocean life in the face of rapidly accelerating global change. However, much work remains ahead.

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Re-writing the future for coral reefs

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Today’s guest post, focused on the important role of coral reefs, comes from Kristen Weiss of the Center for Ocean Solutions—a partnership between Stanford Woods Insititute for the Environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.


“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” -Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

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A toadstool leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Coral reefs have suffered from an intense global bleaching event that began in 2014, threatening more than 40% of the world’s corals and sparking environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen to write a controversial “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef.” Global warming, plus last year’s El Niño event, are the key culprits in this mass bleaching.

Closer to home, reef habitats from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico have also been hard hit. Fortunately, despite this widespread devastation, there are still regions where at least some coral species have survived bleaching—in other words, where coral reefs are mostly dead, but still slightly alive. According to many coral biologists, that makes all the difference.

“In every bleaching event, there are survivors,” explains Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Corals sitting right next to a bleached one that are not themselves bleached. Why? Do those corals just have the right genes? The right algal symbiont? The right micro-habitat? And do they give rise to the next generation of growing corals?”

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Partnership for a plastic-free ocean

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Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson supported the Aquarium’s campaign to pass Proposition 67.

The votes are (mostly) tallied. The 2016 General Election was surely one for the history books—in many ways.

In California, voters confronted one of the longest ballots in the state’s history, with 17 ballot measures. The last of those measures, Proposition 67, was a referendum on a statewide ban on single-use carryout plastic bags. A majority of California voters needed to vote YES to uphold that first-in-the-nation law.

And you did!

The Aquarium and our partners invested incredible time, energy and other resources to help win this ballot fight. Many officials, commissions, editorial boards, conservation groups, entertainers and other supporters also endorsed the measure.

Our visitors and online followers chatted about it on our social media platforms. Our neighbors and friends provided encouragement and helped spread the word. Countless people wore our buttons, carried our signs, and joined the movement in one way or another.

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Natalia Hurley of Monterey Bay Aquarium supports reusable bags.

We want to take a moment to say thanks.

Through our collective work, we were able to make all the difference.

The opponents represented a handful of out-of-state plastic bag manufacturers who poured more than $6 million into defeating California’s historic law. In stark contrast, YES on 67 supporters included an extensive and diverse group of people and organizations that have California’s best interests in mind—and at heart.

We’d like to thank those organizations and individuals with whom the Aquarium worked most closely in the campaign to pass Prop 67. (This is not a comprehensive list.)

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Restoring eelgrass for climate resilience

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State Senator Bill Monning, left, recipient of the 2016 California Ocean Champion Award, speaks at the Ocean Day reception hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

California is forging the path forward on climate leadership. This year, state leaders have made significant progress on policies to reduce our emissions of heat-trapping gases and mitigate the impact of changes already in motion.

Today’s post comes from California Senator Bill Monning, the State Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Monning is the author of SB 1363, an important piece of climate legislation which the Monterey Bay Aquarium supported, and which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law this year. In today’s guest post, Sen. Monning shares his thoughts on how restoring California’s eelgrass habitat can improve the resilience of our coast in the face of climate change.


This past August, the California Legislature adjourned the 2015-2-16 Legislative Session, and once again we passed several bills that tackle the dire issue of climate change.

We extended the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets through 2030, committed state resources to clean up abandoned fishing and crabbing gear that entangles whales off the California coast, and passed Senate Bill (SB) 1363, which I authored, to restore eelgrass habitat and mitigate the impact of carbon dioxide on our atmosphere and ocean.

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Tiny animals called pteropods are among the marine creatures at risk in an acidifying ocean.

SB 1363 requires the Ocean Protection Council (OPC), in coordination with the State Coastal Conservancy, to establish and administer the Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Reduction Program. This measure was introduced in response to the April 2016 report by the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel and the Ocean Science Trust, in collaboration with the OPC.

The panel’s science-based report tells us that ocean acidification is a global issue, and that California’s coast will experience some of the most severe and earliest changes in ocean carbon chemistry. However, the report also tells us that we can take steps to support ocean and coastal resilience in the face of these changes. One recommendation to help reverse the impacts of ocean acidification is the reestablishment of seagrasses, including eelgrass, along California’s coast.

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