Conservation & Science

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.” 

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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.


Speaking up for sustainable fisheries

As new members of Congress get up to speed on key issues like oceans and climate, we’re in Washington, D.C., to raise our voice for ocean conservation.

Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly addressed Congress on the state of fisheries.

On May 1, Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the Aquarium’s vice president of global ocean initiatives, testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Waters, Oceans and Wildlife about the state of fisheries. 

Jenn was invited by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), the subcommittee’s chair, to provide information on the status of U.S. and global fisheries. Building on her remarks to the United Nations in 2017, she provided insight into seafood markets and made policy recommendations to advance the sustainability of U.S. and global fisheries. 

Watch her testimony:

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Honoring a new slate of California Ocean Champions in Sacramento

On March 19, 2019, hundreds of ocean advocates gathered in Sacramento to discuss ocean and coastal issues with state decision-makers during Ocean Day California. In the evening, the Aquarium hosted its tenth annual awards reception for about 200 state officials and legislators, their staff and ocean leaders from across the state. 

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Guests enjoy the spread by Tataki Sushi & Sake Bar, featuring Seafood Watch Best Choice fish and vegan sushi.

Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard presented four state legislators with our 2019 Ocean Champion Awards, honoring their 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.

“California has become a beacon of hope for the nation, and for the world,” Julie said. “Our state is living proof that environmental and economic health are inextricably linked.”

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Rising to the climate challenge: A call to courage, and action

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Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard introduces the ocean plenary at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

Many of us may be feeling discouraged by recent scientific reports about the pace and impact of global climate change.

In a video posted on the Aquarium’s website and social media channels, Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard is calling on concerned Americans to step up and get involved.

“Acting together, with courage, we can protect our beautiful, living blue planet,” Julie says. “I know we’re up to the task.”

Her message comes as world leaders gather in Poland for COP 24 climate talks, and as new scientific reports confirm the steep toll that climate change is already taking on human lives. Those reports include the National Climate Assessment from the U.S. government, a similar assessment from the State of California, and the just-released United Nations’ Emission Gap Report for 2018.

The latest polling shows a majority of Americans agree with the scientific consensus about climate change—and are ready to take courageous action.

Learn more about the ocean impacts of climate change, and what you can do to make a difference.


Making strides for ocean health at the Our Ocean Conference

For nearly 20 years, Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked to shift global seafood production in more sustainable directions—because fishing and aquaculture, done the wrong way, can do great harm to the ocean and ocean wildlife. What started as the Aquarium’s consumer-focused Seafood Watch program has blossomed to engage major seafood buyers, producers and governments in seafood-producing countries around the world.

More recently, the Aquarium has stepped up to address another growing threat to ocean health: a tide of plastic pollution.

Our Ocean BaliThe global impact of our work on both fronts took several steps forward this week at the international Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia—in ways that will be felt in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Since the inaugural conference in 2014, Our Ocean has brought government officials, business leaders and NGOs together to make measurable commitments that will improve ocean health. This year, the Aquarium is a part of four commitments: two to make our global seafood supply more sustainable, and two to reduce the use of ocean-polluting plastic.

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A surge of ocean action in Sacramento

The 2018 California legislative session brought great news for the ocean! The Aquarium supported seven bills and two resolutions this year—and they all became state law.

These new state policies will:

  • Protect our coast from federal offshore oil and gas drilling
  • Restrict several common single-use plastic products that pollute the ocean
  • Continue to conserve California’s marine protected areas, and
  • Encourage new, more sustainable fisheries practices

Here’s a bill-by-bill breakdown.

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