Conservation & Science

Aquariums come together to tackle plastic pollution

Makana stood on a cart at the front of the room and sized up the crowd. Her caretaker offered a few gestures to make her comfortable, scratching her under the chin and misting her with a spray bottle. Then the Laysan albatross partially opened her glossy dark wings, to appreciative murmurs from the audience.

It was as if she knew this was an especially important crowd to impress.

Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium 2016
Aimee David, director of ocean conservation policy and initiatives, addresses the Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium in Monterey.

Watching Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Makana Show” in front of our Kelp Forest Exhibit were more than 100 professionals from aquariums across the U.S. and Canada, along with experts from scientific institutions, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. They were gathered in Monterey for the first-ever Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium, which was hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Over the course of three days, from December 5-7, the group discussed how aquariums can work together to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in our ocean, rivers and lakes.

Albatross around our neck

One place to start is to do what aquariums do best: Tell conservation stories through the animals in our collection.

PMNM - Disentangling Laysan Albatross Chick
A man picks up plastic debris in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, while an albatross chick looks on. Photo by NOAA/Ryan Tataba

Makana represents the threat our plastic trash poses to her species. Laysan albatross parents mistake plastic in the ocean for food, filling their bellies with trash instead of nutrition. Then they pass this trash on to their babies; one study found 97.5 percent of Laysan albatross chicks had plastic in their stomachs.

Four-fifths of the plastic in the ocean—stuff like disposable bags, coffee lids, straws, bottles and packaging—comes from the land. By reducing the sources of single-use plastic, we can make the ocean a healthier home for marine animals.

The collective power of aquariums

Plastic pollution is something many aquariums are already talking about with our audiences, and the timing couldn’t be more urgent: A 2015 study published in the journal Science estimates an average of 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year. That’s enough to fill five grocery bags with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.

Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium 2016
Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium participants learn from partner organizations at an evening reception.

If we don’t slow down, we’ll be trashing the ocean at more than twice that rate by 2025.

Aquariums are highly trusted sources of science-based information. We’re on the front lines of ocean education, engaging people from all walks of life on the science of aquatic ecosystems. We’re also businesses, tourist destinations and leaders in our communities. Working together, we can raise a powerful voice for action to improve ocean and freshwater health.

In the months ahead, you’ll be hearing more about plastic pollution, and what you can do to help, from Monterey Bay Aquarium—and an aquarium near you.

Featured photo: Participants at the Aquarium Plastic Pollution Sympoisum watch “The Makana Show,” featuring our Laysan albatross, at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Learn more about ocean plastic pollution, what we’re doing to make a difference, and how you can join the movement.

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