Conservation & Science

Building bridges across an ocean to save a species

From a human perspective, the ocean is mind-bogglingly vast, deep and mysterious. Many of us live along the coast, or visit it on vacation, but few have experienced the high seas. We may not think much about marine life until it’s on our plates.

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Chef Ed Kenney

But this week Ed Kenney, a Hawaii-based celebrity chef and a member of the Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, called on people to rethink our appetite for one particular fish: Pacific bluefin tuna. These huge, fast predators, which migrate thousands of miles across the Earth’s largest ocean, are now down to less than 3 percent of their historical abundance due to overfishing.

“We chefs must take Pacific bluefin off our menus now, and give these powerful fish a chance to rebound,” Kenney writes on the National Geographic Ocean Views blog.

The Aquarium shares his concerns. For years, our scientists have been working to unravel the mysteries of the fish itself, by studying live bluefin in the lab, keeping them in our Open Sea exhibit, and tracking them in the wild.

We’ve learned a lot about the movement of Pacific bluefin by tagging more than 1,400 fish off the coast of California. But, mysteriously, not one of these individuals has made it back across the Pacific to its spawning grounds in the Sea of Japan.

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A Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) is released after tagging.

That told us we needed to take a different tack. This year the Aquarium’s tuna team partnered with Japanese colleagues, tagging more than 2,500 bluefin in the West Pacific to learn about their movement during this critical life phase.

Our hope is that the resulting data will help fill critical gaps in our understanding of this severely overfished species.

And that’s where our policy work comes in. Leveraging our bluefin research and policy experience, we are building bridges across the Pacific, and attempting to bring nations together to save a species. Last January we convened the international Bluefin Futures Symposium, bringing together fishing groups, nonprofits and governments from around the world to discuss solutions.

At a critical international meeting in Fukuoka, Japan, later this month, Aquarium Science Director Kyle Van Houtan and Federal Ocean Policy Manager Josh Madeira will urge Pacific nations to make serious, science-based commitments to recover bluefin tuna.

That’s Kenney’s hope, too.

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A wild Pacific bluefin tuna swims in the Sea of Japan. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Ethan Estess

“A growing chorus of people around the world, including some Japanese fishermen, are worried about the future of Pacific bluefin tuna,” he writes. “I want their children to be able to carry on Japanese fishing traditions, just as I want Hawaiian fishermen to continue catching bigeye tuna to support our local markets.

“In both cases, it has to be done in a sustainable manner. And that means we need to follow scientific recommendations and adhere to international agreements.”


Featured image: Bejeweled bluefin art at the 2016 Bluefin Futures Symposium, co-hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University.

Sampling the snowy plover song

A snowy plover with a broken wing cheeped to her chicks at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s wild bird rehabilitation facility.

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A Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus) with summer plumage in the Aviary exhibit.

The tiny bird’s high-pitched, staccato trills gave Aimee Greenebaum, the Aquarium’s curator of aviculture, an idea. That night, her colleagues tiptoed into the plover’s room with a microphone and recorded her peeps.

“It was a total whim,” Aimee says.

Ten years later, her team is still playing those plover-mama calls from a boom box—to coax eggs into hatching, and to soothe orphaned chicks.

The Aquarium is a rehabilitation site for the Western snowy plover, a shorebird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

During breeding season, Aimee’s team works with local parks and conservation groups to rescue and release injured snowy plovers and abandoned chicks. The collaboration has helped grow a healthy breeding population in Monterey Bay.

Read more…

Visiting the Canadian cousins of Monterey Bay’s sea otters

Since 1984, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program team has worked to understand and protect southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). The population has slowly recovered from near-extinction in the early 1900s to become an icon of California’s Central Coast. Northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) have a similar story on the Southwest Canadian Coast: After going locally extinct in the early 1900s, they’ve been reintroduced and are expanding their range.

 Today, the Hakai Institute is studying how the presence of sea otters is changing kelp forest ecosystems in a marine protected area along the British Columbia coast. This summer, Aquarium Sea Otter Research Coordinator Michelle Staedler and Senior Research Biologist Jessica Fujii traveled to Calvert Island to help monitor northern sea otters. Michelle shares her insights from the expedition.


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Calvert Island and the Hakai Institute field station. Photo by Grant Callegari

The pilot banked the small plane, flying up a narrow waterway at the upper end of Calvert Island. Jessica and I saw below us a floating dock, several boats and red-roofed buildings nestled among the trees. This would be our home base for the next two and a half weeks.

Our destination: Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island Field Station, a coastal research facility 400 miles a northwest of Seattle. The only way to the island is by boat or float plane, weather permitting—but the frequent fog and storms don’t always cooperate.

Winter Sea Otter Research on the West Coast of Canada from Hakai on Vimeo.

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Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Bluefin karaoke

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna—particularly Pacific bluefin, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this summer we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This is the fourth and final dispatch in his series.


Last night got a little wild.  We haven’t seen a bluefin tuna in nine days, and we’re all starting to go a little stir-crazy. That night over dinner, we have beverages. Fine Japanese beverages. And after dinner? More beverages. Lo and behold, the restaurant owner pulled out the karaoke machine.

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Student Kota Sebe lays down a high-energy karaoke performance.

I was first to the microphone with a reliable jam, “Under Pressure” by the late David Bowie and Queen. I didn’t realize the karaoke machines here have a complex vocal analysis system that scores your performance. Let’s just say I didn’t go platinum. (Definitely a problem with that karaoke software.)

It was Dr. Ko Fujioka who put on the winning performance of the night: a classic Japanese pop song from the ’80s. Fujioka-san rocked it, getting a high score of 91.7 points, the third-highest in the restaurant’s history.  People were dancing and cheering—karaoke is a big deal here.

Then researcher Mitsuake Sato got up and sang a powerful love ballad, replacing the female subject’s name with maguro (Japanese for “bluefin”). In tears from laughing, we went to bed, glad to have vented our Bluefin Blues in some way.

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Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Hamachi days

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna – particularly Pacific bluefin, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this summer we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This is the third dispatch in his series; you can read the second here.


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Even when the nets come up tunaless, Sado Island offers some lovely sights.

It’s Day 9 of our bluefin tuna tagging expedition in the Sea of Japan. I’m sorry to report that after an exciting first day, we haven’t seen a single tuna in over a week.

We head out at 4 a.m. every day, excited at the prospect of a trap full of big bluefin ready to be fitted with satellite tracking tags. But when our crew hauls the net, what do we find? Lots and lots of yellowtail, or hamachi.

That’s fishing, I guess. Last fall I spent three weeks in chilly Nova Scotia and only tagged two tuna. (Weeks of bad weather kept us stuck in a cabin, watching B-rated movies.) Another year, we were hoping to tag bluefin off of Mexico, but the fishing was so slow we watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in a day.

I’m really hoping this isn’t going to be another one of those trips.

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Think your parents are tough? Try being a sea turtle

People have some pretty diverse perspectives on raising kids—from the hands-on “helicopter” approach to the hands-off “free-range” style.

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A pod of orcas in Monterey Bay show “helicopter parenting” in action. ©Jim Capwell/www.divecentral.com

In the ocean, the parenting spectrum is even more extreme. Evolution has formed wildly different strategies for plants and animals to create future generations.

The ocean’s helicopter parents are marine mammals, such as orcas and whales. They give birth to one or two calves a year and invest heavily in each one’s survival. Mother orcas give their babies milk and teach them to hunt; the pod provides social connections and protects against predators.

Other animals, such as sea turtles, are hard-core free-range parents—leaving their offspring to fend for themselves from the start.

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Working together to save the vaquita

Update 7/21/16: Mexican authorities have adopted new rules making the gillnet ban permanent in the upper Gulf of California, and improving the ability for officials to enforce the ban. The changes—encouraged by advocates including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—offer new hope for vaquitas’ recovery in the wild.


Pop quiz: What’s the world’s rarest marine mammal?

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A mural in San Felipe, Mexico, celebrates vaquitas. There is very little documentation of vaquitas in the wild; most images of live vaquitas are artist renderings. Photo by Sean Bogle

Answer: It’s a small, shy porpoise called the vaquita (va-KEE-tah). Vaquitas live only in a small part of the northern Gulf of California, bordering Baja California and the Mexican mainland. The dark markings around their mouths and eyes give them a unique look, and have led to their nickname, “panda of the sea.”

They’re also critically endangered. A May 2016 survey estimates fewer than 60 are left.

Populations of elephant seals and gray whales, which once faced extinction in this same region, have recovered thanks to transnational cooperation. There’s hope for vaquitas, too.

In observance of International Save the Vaquita Day, July 9, aquariums and zoos across the United States are raising their voices for strong and immediate conservation action on behalf of the vaquita. You can help when you join the Monterey Bay Aquarium and sign the petition to protect them from fishing practices that threaten their survival.

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