Conservation & Science

Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 4

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this final installment of a four-part series, we begin to see the payoff of this effortas a small supply of sustainably farmed shrimp makes its way from Vietnam to Los Angeles. (Continued from Part 1Part 2 and Part 3)

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A street-cart vendor serves customers in Bangkok. Photo by Tore Bustad via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Silver skyscrapers stretch into the clouds above Bangkok, towering over streets packed with traffic and colorful food tents. Street-cart vendors serve sticky pad Thai, lotus-root curry and pickled pig skin from sizzling woks. This city of more than eight million is alive with open-air markets, underground art and some of the world’s oldest temples.

Seafood Watch Science Director Wendy Norden looks out from the restaurant balcony. Her team of ocean policy and aquaculture experts is decompressing after a busy day of meetings. They had spent more than eight hours with dozens of stakeholders from across Southeast Asia, brainstorming solutions to the seafood industry’s biggest challenges, from habitat degradation and chemical overuse to labor abuses.

Josh Madeira examines farmed shrimp in Thailand - Photo by Mark Anderson
Aquarium policy expert Josh Madeira, center, checks out a farmer’s shrimp in Thailand. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

The group included Vietnamese caviar producers, Indonesian fish professionals, Burmese seafood producers, American seafood buyers, and environmental auditors from Ireland, Thailand and Vietnam—all face-to-face in a Bangkok conference room.

“The people in that room pull a lot of levers,” says Tyler Isaac, a Seafood Watch aquaculture scientist. “There’s a chance to make a really big impact, from both the top and from the ground level.”

His boss agrees. “We’re filling a need that’s not being met,” Wendy says. “We’re trying to dig in and solve difficult issues that nobody’s been able to solve yet.” Read more…

Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 3

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this third installment of a four-part series, we explore how an innovative partnership is driving an ambitious vision for sustainable shrimp production. (Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.) 

“Sustainability is very important for human beings and other species sharing our common home,” says Aquarium consultant Cu Thi Le Thuy. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

Friday rush hour traffic rumbles by the Hanoi coffee shop where Cu Thi Le Thuy sips a cup of hot tea. Mopeds zip between cars, pedestrians weave through the currents and sirens amplify the tumult.

But for Thuy, this is a rare moment of stillness. She gazes past the traffic at Hoàn Kiếm Lake and its Temple of the Jade Mountain, which appears to float on the water. Thuy has a gift for focusing on what’s most important when others might be overwhelmed by the surrounding noise. 

The Aquarium hired Thuy as a regional expert who knows her native Vietnam and its neighboring nations inside out. She works as a translator in the broadest sense—helping bridge linguistic, cultural and knowledge gaps between Aquarium experts and the region’s seafood industry representatives. And she’s helping deploy a new tool that aims to share the power, and responsibility, of verification throughout the supply chain.

The Aquarium’s collaboration with Thuy, and regional experts like her, gets to the heart of a common question: Why are we working to influence seafood production an ocean away from our California headquarters?

Put simply: Market power. Read more…

Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 2

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this second installment of a four-part series, we take a peek at life on the shrimp pond—as Seafood Watch wades into the business of small-scale aquaculture in Southeast Asia. (Continued from Part 1.)

Pokkrong Kirdsook, Taylor Voorhees and Tyler Isaac walk single-file onto a thin wooden plank. The boards bow with each step, sagging closer to the pond four feet below. Pokkrong pulls up a spindly rope, lifting a cylindrical mesh cage from the water.

It looks like they could be panning for gold, but the riches in this cage are more lively. Exposed to the warm air on this humid afternoon in southern Thailand, whiteleg shrimp wriggle and jump on the mesh. 

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Left to right: Seafood Watch experts Tyler Isaac and Taylor Voorhees; shrimp farmer Pokkrong Kirdsook. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

Taylor and Tyler, both Seafood Watch senior aquaculture scientists, admire the results. Shrimp farmers need to navigate a number of risks to produce shrimp this healthy. Even the variation within a lunar cycle can impact the development of their protective exoskeletons. 

The tiny pier on Pokkrong’s farm is 8,300 miles from the Seafood Watch office in Monterey, California, but Taylor and Tyler feel at home. Both worked in aquaculture production before joining the Aquarium; they even built a small aquaponic rig in Tyler’s backyard.

They’re visiting shrimp operations in the Thai province of Krabi to talk with farmers about everything from local government regulations to wastewater management and natural remedies for shrimp ailments. 

Across the Pacific, a powerful network of North American retailers—including Seafood Watch partners Blue Apron, Red Lobster and Whole Foods—are interested in what they find out. Read more…

Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 1

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this first installment of a four-part series, we examine the growing American appetite for shrimp—and how it’s created a booming industry across the Pacific.

Every night, in kitchens across America, hundreds of thousands of people prepare the same dinner. Recently it was cavatelli pasta with zucchini, garlic and cherry tomatoes, sautéed in butter with mascarpone cheese and tender shrimp.

Shrimp cavatelli dish from meal-kit company Blue Apron. Photo courtesy Blue Apron

The portioned ingredients—down to the optional bottle of Viognier white wine—are delivered to customers’ doorsteps from Blue Apron, a national meal kit company that makes this sophisticated meal easy to prepare. The shrimp is also sustainable: As a partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, Blue Apron avoids seafood that’s produced in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.

Carrie Conley of Fort Irwin, California, says she chose Blue Apron because of its partnership with Seafood Watch. Sustainable seafood has been important to her since she started visiting the Aquarium, where she learned about the environmental impacts of fishing and aquaculture

“If I’m actively trying to find organic chicken,” she reasoned, “why not make better choices across the board?” 

Blue Apron makes it easy for customers like Carrie to access sustainably harvested shrimp. But producing that shrimp, and getting it into meal-kit boxes from faraway places like Southeast Asia, is anything but simple.

This is the story of how a broad network—including global seafood businesses, government agencies, Vietnamese shrimp farmers, U.S. chefs and the Monterey Bay Aquarium—are working together to make it happen. Read more…

Climate change: A triple threat for the ocean

The ocean headlines these past few months have been unsettling. 

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Now is the time for climate action. It’s not too late; we still have a choice about the kind of future we want to leave today’s children.

A just-released scientific report connects these and a host of other ocean changes with human activities that take place largely on land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate marks the first time that the IPCC has written a stand-alone report on the marine realm. It presents a detailed account of the increasingly severe consequences of climate change for the ocean, its trillions of creatures and, ultimately, ourselves. 

The report makes clear that to protect the ocean, we must first reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But we must also reduce ocean stress, caused by overfishing and pollution, so the ocean is healthy enough to weather the changes already underway.

“The bottom line is that we need the ocean. And right now, the ocean needs us,” said Julie Packard, executive director of the Aquarium. “It’s not too late to take courageous climate action and safeguard the ocean from further damage.” 

Read more…

The feel-good science behind sea otter surrogacy

Surrogate-reared otter released into Elkhorn Slough by Monterey Bay Aquarium
A new study reveals the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program bolsters the local otter population. Here, a surrogate-reared otter leaps into Elkhorn Slough on California’s central coast.

Ask not (only) what you can do for sea otters, but what sea otters can do for California.

That’s one of the thoughts on the minds of Aquarium scientists in the wake of a new study, which confirms the power of sea otters to restore coastal ecosystems.

Since 2002, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has reared rescued sea otter pups for release to the wild. Female otters in our exhibit serve as their “surrogate mothers,” teaching them critical life skills like how to groom themselves and forage. The hope is that when the pups are released in Elkhorn Slough, a wetland 20 miles north of the Aquarium, they’ll be able to thrive on their own.

A newly published study confirms that these surrogate-reared pups are surviving as well as their wild kin—and the resulting bump in the otter population at Elkhorn Slough is helping to restore the estuary ecosystem.

The remarkable success of the Aquarium’s program, documented in Oryx, highlights a tremendous opportunity: to help sea otters contribute to the revival of other coastal estuaries along the California coast.

Otter 327 with surrogate mother Toola at Monterey Bay Aquarium
Otter 327 (right) was raised by surrogate mother “Toola” (left) at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Historically hunted for their fur, southern sea otters were nearly wiped out in California in the 19th century. Thanks to federal protection and a concerted conservation program, the population has slowly recovered in recent decades. But California’s wild population has plateaued at just over 3,000 sea otters—far below the historical level of 18,000-20,000. As a keystone species, sea otters have earned the title of “ecosystem engineers,” because they can deliver outsized benefits to degraded stretches of coastline.

The Aquarium’s sea otter surrogacy program is the first of its kind—a pioneering approach to rescuing, rearing and returning sea otter pups to the wild. From 2002-2016, Aquarium staff released 37 surrogate-reared pups in Elkhorn Slough, a national estuarine research reserve. Scientists now estimate that those surrogate-raised otters and their wild offspring account for more than half of Elkhorn Slough’s otter population growth over the past 15 years.

 “The success of those individuals wound up having both population-level and ecosystem-level impacts,” says Karl Mayer, sea otter field response coordinator at the Aquarium and lead author of the new scientific study. “This lays the groundwork for a new discussion around returning sea otters to more of their historical range.”

“We knew this was a great program and a feel-good story,” Aquarium Chief Scientist Dr. Kyle Van Houtan added. “Now we know this is great science.”

In need of a nudge

Before the onset of the fur trade, sea otters ranged from northern Japan through

Otter 327 in the wild with her own pup in Elkhorn Slough - credit Monterey Bay Aquarium
Surrogate-reared otter 327 (right) successfully returned to the wild where she raised her own pup.

Alaska and down the West Coast all the way to Mexico’s Baja California. But today, California’s sea otters are limited to a 300-mile stretch of the Central Coast, from around Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara. 

“In the center of their range, sea otter populations are dense and close to carrying capacity,” Karl says. “However, at the northern and southern edges, kelp is sparse—providing little shelter for otters to evade white shark bites. For the population to grow in a meaningful way, the range itself might need to expand into historical habitats to which sea otters have not yet returned. Through our surrogacy program, we may have figured out how to facilitate that expansion.”

In the 1960s and ‘70s, wildlife managers succeeded in several attempts to move sea otters from established territories to waters they inhabited before the fur trade. They helped sea otters return to Southeast Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state, but an effort to reestablish sea otters in Oregon failed.

 In California, translocation took a hit after more than 100 wild sea otters were moved to San Nicolas Island, 70 miles south of Ventura, starting in 1987. The effort was politically fraught and biologically unsuccessful. More than 80 percent of the translocated sea otters disappeared or swam back to the mainland. While the island’s sea otter population has grown in recent years (one estimate puts it over 80 animals), many still remember the translocation’s initial shortcomings.

Any new proposals to reintroduce sea otters to more of their historical range, Karl cautions, must consider the lessons of San Nicolas Island.

 Where to go from here?

Surrogate mother Abby with wild-born pup 598 in 2012 by Monterey Bay Aquarium
Surrogate mothers like “Abby” (left) help raise stranded pups that can eventually return to the wild.

When the Aquarium first started pairing exhibit otters with orphaned pups, the goal was not to help sea otters return to their historical range. The Aquarium team simply hoped the surrogate otter moms would have more success teaching these rescued pups than the humans who tried it before them.

The new research paper confirms that surrogate-reared pups survive at a rate comparable to that of their wild kin. Unlike the animals translocated to San Nicolas Island, these wild-released otters are accepting Elkhorn Slough as their home territory. 

“Typically, if a sea otter has an established home range, it’s going to want to move back to it,” Karl says. “I think that’s what we saw with the majority of the animals that were moved to San Nicolas. They tried to go back home.”

 By contrast, most of the surrogate-reared sea otters stayed put after they were released into Elkhorn Slough. Karl says that’s because they were “ecologically naive” when they got separated from their mothers. “They just hadn’t been alive long enough to establish a territory,” he says. “In many cases, they probably stranded the same day they were born.”

Surrogate-reared otter 451 released into Elkhorn Slough in 2009 by Monterey Bay Aquarium
Surrogate-reared otters (like study otter 451) released to the wild can help restore ecosystems along the California coast.

 The surrogate-reared otters’ lack of site fidelity, combined with survival and reproduction rates on par with their wild counterparts, makes reintroducing these animals elsewhere a concept worth investigating. 

Historically, estuaries along the entire California coast supported sea otter populations. Today, Kyle says, many of our state’s ecologically degraded estuaries could benefit from sea otters’ return. 

“Surrogate-reared females were among the first to produce pups in Elkhorn Slough,” he says. “The fact that they have no ecological memory of another home makes them better candidates for reintroduction to unfamiliar habitat.” 

Where and when that might happen remains to be seen. For now, the Aquarium is literally taking baby steps.


California Action Alert: Help us turn the tide against ocean plastic pollution!

UPDATE Sept. 16, 2019: Unfortunately, the State Legislature did not vote on the California Plastic Pollution Reduction Act in 2019.  However, leaders can pick the bills back up in 2020. We are confident that there will continue to be momentum next year to advance this legislation. Please stay tuned! 

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Monterey Bay is celebrated around the world for its beautiful ocean views and photogenic wildlife, like sea otters, sardines and whales. But even these protected waters are more polluted than they seem.

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Researchers found plastic in the bodies of pelagic red crabs, which are food for many ocean animals, from the surface to the deep sea. Photo © Monterey Bay Aquarium/Patrick Webster

Aquarium and MBARI scientists recently found plastic throughout the Monterey Bay water column, from the surface to the deep sea. And most of it matched the same type of plastic used in the single-use products we discard every day, like water bottles, takeout food containers and other packaging.

If we don’t change course, the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean is projected to double in just six years. But California is in a position to get out in front of this challenge and lead the U.S. toward a cleaner future.

The California Plastic Pollution Reduction Act sets a target of reducing 75 percent of packaging waste—and the most polluting single-use plastic products—by 2030. And it sets criteria to make sure that what remains is increasingly recycled or composted.

Join us in urging your California legislators to vote YES on the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act.

This bill is among the most visionary approaches to solid waste legislation in the state’s history. It tackles the growing problem of plastic pollution in our ocean and waterways, and inspires innovation to “design out” waste from the products and packages we use every day.

Read more…

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