Conservation & Science

Safeguarding seamounts: the hidden Yosemites of the deep

At the bottom of the ocean, amid vast, pitch-dark expanses of mud, there are a few exceptional, rocky places: undersea mountains. Here, the muddy seafloor and burrowing worms give way to bedrock and beautiful gardens of corals and sponges.

Seamounts are islands of biological diversity in the deep sea, home to rich marine communities of often long-lived animals. Photo courtesy MBARI/NOAA

Seamounts, as these peaks are known, “are the Yosemites of the deep sea that nobody sees,” says Dr. Jim Barry, a marine ecologist at MBARI—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Under the surface, right off the horizon, is this wonderful world that’s been developing, slowly but surely, like a sequoia forest.”

Some seamounts are covered with ancient corals and deep-sea sponges that stand a meter tall and resemble oak trees. They’re also home to anemones, clams, small crustaceans and all manner of fishes. Many of these creatures rely on smell instead of vision to find food in these inky waters, at least half a mile deep.

Life on seamounts is of interest to marine scientists and to biotech researchers who hope to develop new pharmaceutical products based on properties in sponges, mussels and microbes. Photo courtesy MBARI

Seamounts are a frontier for scientific discovery, both for basic research, designed to fill knowledge gaps, and for applied research aiming to solve practical problems. Biotech companies, for instance, are interested in unique chemicals produced by deep-sea microbes, sponges, and mussels, which hint at pharmaceutical applications from antibiotics to fighting cancer.

Only a few seamounts are legally protected, like national parks are on land. One of those is Davidson Seamount, 80 miles southwest of Monterey and part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. But the Trump administration is in the process of reviewing Davidson Seamount’s designation, with an eye for potentially stripping its protection and opening it up for new offshore oil and gas drilling. Read more…

Sea otters’ perilous path to recovery

For more than 30 years, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a key contributor to sea otter recovery in California. Aquarium researchers and policy experts have advanced scientific knowledge, promoted improved management and raised public awareness of the contributions sea otters make to healthy coastal ecosystems. A new research paper in the journal Ecography draws on three decades of Aquarium research to establish a link between sparse kelp cover along the California coast and a recent rise in sea otter mortalities from white shark bites. The finding illuminates a new challenge for everyone working toward sea otter recovery: Will sea otters be able to run the gauntlet of white sharks and expand back into their historical range without human assistance? Conservation Research staffer Athena Copenhaver explores the challenge.

Senior research biologist Teri Nicholson fans out her left hand, tapping each finger as she recites a brief list of unusual names: Jiggs, Goldie, Hailey, Milkdud . . .

Exhibit sea otters like Rosa play a key role behind the scenes, as surrogate mothers rearing stranded otter pups.

They might sound as though they belong to beloved pets, but Teri is actually recalling the stranded southern sea otter pups taken in by Monterey Bay Aquarium back in 1984.

Although Teri and her colleagues didn’t know it at the time, these first four orphaned pups became foundational data points in a pioneering sea otter study that spans the lifetime of the Aquarium.

The study, recently published in Ecography, uses information collected from 725 live-stranded sea otters between 1984 and 2015 to illuminate the critical relationship between a healthy kelp canopy, sea otter population recovery, and sea otter deaths from white shark bites.

Sea otter pups, rescued and raised by the Aquarium, are contributing to recovery of the wild population. Photo © Sea Studios Foundation

“By rescuing and rehabilitating stranded animals, we can observe symptoms and determine possible reasons the animal might have stranded,” explains Teri. “And, that means we can look for patterns in threats otters face over time.” Read more…

Raising the “beautiful sea goddess”

Unearthly, transparent and beautiful—and also exceedingly delicate. The spotted comb jelly is so fragile a creature, just waving your hand through the water could destroy it. Now, for the first time anywhere, animal care staff at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have managed to culture these fragile, scintillating creatures.

Young spotted comb jellies were raised behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and are now on exhibit.

Several of the newly hatched jellies are now on public display. It’s the latest advance in comb jelly science from the Aquarium team.

The species, known scientifically as Leucothea pulchra—Latin for “beautiful sea goddess”is “a clear football-shaped gelatinous animal” says Wyatt Patry, a senior aquarist who’s worked at the Aquarium for 11 years, and who led the culturing effort this winter.

“They’re ctenophores, not true jellyfish,” Wyatt notes. “Instead of stinging cells they have sticky cells called colloblasts.”

The spotted comb jelly’s common name refers to orange “knobs” or spots along its body.

“We don’t know what those do but we suspect they aid in prey capture,” Wyatt says. Two sticky tentacles trail behind it, acting like fishing lines.

“They also have cool whips called ‘auricles’ that they wave around—undulate—in this really cool slow wave motion, probably driving food into their mouths,” he says.

Read more…

Honoring our 2018 California Ocean Champions: Assemblymembers Eduardo Garcia and Mark Stone

On February 20, 2018, hundreds of ocean advocates gathered at the state Capitol to discuss ocean and coastal issues with top decision-makers during Ocean Day California. In the evening, the Aquarium hosted its ninth annual awards reception for about 200 state officials and legislators, their staff and ocean leaders.

Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard presented our 2018 California Ocean Champion Award to Assemblymembers Eduardo Garcia and Mark Stone, who have made significant contributions to California’s ocean and coastal leadership. The award is part of the Aquarium’s work to inspire and inform government decision-makers to take science-based action on behalf of the ocean.

Read more…

A time machine to understand ocean health

For scientists seeking to understand how the ocean is changing, perhaps the ideal research instrument would be a time machine. Absent such technology, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been working to create the next best thing. It’s a new facility called the Ocean Memory Laboratory.

The white-tailed tropic bird was one of eight species from the North Pacific included in the Ocean Memory Lab study. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For the lab’s inaugural project, researchers have put together a dataset of the feeding habits of eight species of seabirds over the span of almost 130 years. They analyzed archived feathers dating as far back as 1890, using a technique called compound-specific stable isotope analysis, to better understand how the birds’ diets shifted in response to factors ranging from competition with humans to the changing climate.

“In the grand scheme of things, in our field of science, even 10 years of data is encouraging,” says Tyler Gagne, an assistant research scientist at the Aquarium and lead author of the new study, published February 14 in Science Advances. “This is a 130-year-long dataset, which is really amazing.”

Data, data everywhere

The study exemplifies the promise of the Ocean Memory Lab—the brainchild of Aquarium science director Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, who co-authored the publication together with two colleagues based in Hawaii, Dr. David Hyrenbach of Hawaii Pacific University and Molly E. Hagemann of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan conceived the Ocean Memory Lab as a way to learn about past ocean conditions and inform current conservation policy.

Identifying novel sources of long-term data is at the heart of the lab’s mission, Kyle says, because conservation projects often lack an informed baseline of ecosystem health to compare against.

“What are the conservation targets? What are we managing for? How do we know when we’re done?” he asks. “We often don’t have enough data or a sufficiently long-term record to provide informed answers to those questions.”

The solution, as Kyle sees it, may lie within the creatures themselves—or more precisely, in the chemistry of their tissues, which can record what they were eating, as well as clues about the surrounding ocean. Read more…

Shining a light on seafood slavery

Imagine you’re a young father, from Myanmar, who has come to Thailand to find work as a fisherman and support your family. Once aboard ship, your time at sea stretches to weeks, months, or even a year. You find yourself working 20 hours a day, at one of the world’s most dangerous occupations. You sleep in unsanitary quarters, and are subject to violence and intimidation.

The risk tool can help businesses engage with suppliers to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.

But your biggest surprise occurs when the boat finally docks: You are kept in locked quarters, and not allowed to come ashore. The captain has taken your passport and keeps much of your wages.

Seafood slavery is real, and occurring in many parts of the globe. And the byproducts of this underworld economy—shrimp, crab, snapper and other popular seafood items—can make their way to dinner tables in the United States.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program wants to help businesses keep slavery out of their seafood supply, and improve conditions for people who are—literally—slaving to produce the world’s seafood. In coordination with Liberty Asia and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, it just released an online tool so major seafood buyers—retailers, foodservice companies and restaurant chains—can identify the risk of forced labor, human trafficking or hazardous child labor in the seafood they purchase. Read more…

Action Alert: Help protect America’s coasts from offshore oil drilling

The sustainable use of our ocean is the lifeblood of coastal communities—supporting tourism, fisheries and recreation while protecting extraordinary marine wildlife. Offshore oil drilling in sensitive coastal waters puts coastal economies, jobs and animals at unnecessary risk.

NIOSH Deepwater Horizon Emergency Response Efforts
A flare burns during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Photo by NIOSH

That’s why we’re speaking out against the federal Administration’s draft proposed plan to open nearly all U.S. ocean waters, including six areas in California, to oil and gas drilling. And we need you to join us.

“The President’s offshore oil and gas plan is an outrage—a huge step backward,” says Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard. “Our remarkable ocean ecosystems, and all of us who depend on them, deserve better.”

The governors of almost every U.S. coastal state have expressed opposition or concern about oil and gas drilling off their state’s shores.

The Administration is taking public comments on the offshore oil drilling plan through March 9. We urge you to speak out to protect coastal waters. Your voice matters!

Click here to add your comment to the Federal Register. Consider using our suggested talking points below.

(Be sure to replace the text in brackets with your hometown; it also helps to add some personal thoughts about how offshore oil drilling could affect you.)

Read more…

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