Conservation & Science

International honors for our conservation commitment

Our 33rd year has been remarkable in many ways, and the last day of the year brought with it a humbling honor. Monterey Bay Aquarium was saluted by colleagues with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), for the depth and scientific rigor of our work to safeguard the health of the ocean.

“This is quite an anniversary present!” Cynthia Vernon told WAZA delegates as she accepted the Conservation Award on behalf of Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“This is quite an anniversary present!” Aquarium Chief Operating Officer Cynthia Vernon told WAZA delegates gathered in Berlin, Germany as she accepted the second-ever Conservation Award presented by the WAZA, an association of 300 member zoos and aquariums from six continents.

A special relationship

“We’ve long recognized that public aquariums enjoy a special relationship with our visitors,” she added. “The people who come through are doors are here to be inspired by remarkable ocean animals, and to share a memorable time with the people they care about. In the face of great and urgent threats to ocean health, we—all of us in the international aquarium community—have more opportunities than ever to make a difference. And we have more responsibility than ever before to use the trust we’ve earned from the public to do all we can on behalf of the ocean.”

We’ve hosted more than 2.5 million students on field trips, and created programs to empower emerging teen conservation leaders. Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger

Monterey Bay Aquarium is driven by our mission, “to inspire conservation of the ocean.” Recognition by our peers is validation of the many ways in which we’ve expanded our vision for what that means—from informing our visitors to educating tomorrow’s ocean leaders. From participating in scientific collaborations to taking policy action and engaging with partners around the globe. We’ve evolved from inspiring ocean conservation to taking action.

We’ve long encouraged other aquariums to step up as ocean advocates.

People expect us to act

“Based on the public’s response to our work, I remain convinced of the value of broadening how we as public aquariums define ourselves,” Executive Director Julie Packard told delegates to the International Aquarium Congress nearly a decade ago. “Aquariums can achieve powerful conservation results through outreach and advocacy, and in fact, the public expects us to do so.  By listening closely to our audiences, we can build more meaningful and lasting relationships with them and, in turn, strengthen our institutions, our field and our conservation impact.”

Our research with sea otters, sharks, Pacific bluefin tuna and other species helps us understand and protect marine life and ecosystems.

We began when our doors opened in 1984, with a commitment to create innovative living exhibits, to conduct field research programs aimed at understanding the ocean’s living systems, and to offer education programs that inspire and shape new generations.

Today, our work encompasses all that and more—including a growing engagement in the ocean policy arena: in our community, in California, across the United States and around the world.

Doing more for the ocean

WAZA, as the voice of a global community of conservation-minded zoos and aquariums, encourages its members to do more to protect wildlife and wild places. In conferring the Conservation Award, it cited the breadth of our work on behalf of ocean protection and in building public awareness of ocean issues.

The Aquarium’s partnerships for sustainable seafood span the globe.

“The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Conservation and Science programs tackle some of the most critical issues affecting ocean health, including pollution, plastic and illegal fishing,” said Dr. Manfred Niekisch of the Frankfurt Zoo, who chairs the WAZA Conservation and Sustainability Committee. “The Aquarium brings decades of expertise and relationships in ocean science, policy and markets to the task, and it’s a trusted source of ocean information to make a difference globally—among policymakers, the business community and with individuals.”

The committee specifically called out our work in support of sustainable global fisheries and aquaculture, and our growing engagement in ocean policy where, he said, we “inspire and inform government decision makers to take science-based action on behalf of ocean health.”

Learn more about our work on behalf of ocean wildlife and ocean health.

California’s sea otters need more space to grow

Southern sea otters are a common (and adorable) sight off the Aquarium’s back deck. But the latest otter count shows the population isn’t growing at the pace we’d hoped it would. In order for the species to truly recover, otters need to return to their old habitats along California’s coast—places they haven’t inhabited for over 100 years.

For the second year in a row, California’s sea otter population index has topped an encouraging number: 3,090. That’s the minimum threshold before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can consider delisting southern sea otters as a federally threatened species.

A southern sea otter with her newborn pup in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Great Tide Pool. Photo by Tyson Rininger

But the 2017 sea otter count is down quite a bit from 2016 levels, and even the three-year rolling average (the population index), on which federal wildlife managers base their decisions, is down by about 100.

Regardless of year-to-year variations, southern sea otters number far fewer today than they did historically, and their current geographic range represents just a fraction of the waters they occupied before fur traders drove them to the brink of extinction in the 19th century.

To reach the optimum sustainable population under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan, the southern sea otter population would likely have to reach at least 8,400 animals in California alone.

A remnant colony of sea otters was rediscovered off the Big Sur coast in the 1930s. Photo © William L. Morgan/California Views Photo Archives

“What we really want to see is the population reinhabiting areas of its historical range,” says Andrew Johnson who, as conservation research operations manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium,  oversees the sea otter program. “We’ve seen how positively coastal ecosystems respond to the presence of sea otters—from the return of thriving kelp beds along the rocky coast, to renewed productivity of wetlands like Elkhorn Slough. We know that many other areas along the California coast would benefit significantly from sea otters’ return.” Read more…

‘Historic moment’: Nations act to save Pacific bluefin tuna

Today in Busan, South Korea, Pacific nations came together and agreed, for the first time, to recover the population of Pacific bluefin tuna to a sustainable level.

Bluefin tuna at auction in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. Japan consumes 90 percent of the world;s catch of bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy Associated Press.

“This is a historic moment for this remarkable species, which is so important to the ocean ecosystem and to coastal communities around the Pacific Rim,” said Margaret Spring, Chief Conservation Officer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

At the annual meeting of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission—the body responsible for managing tunas and other highly migratory species across the western Pacific Ocean—international delegates discussed ways to recover the population of Pacific bluefin tuna after years of decline. Ultimately, they took a major step forward by agreeing to recover the population to a sustainable level and establishing a long-term management plan.

Read more…

How do you tag a jellyfish?  

They’re so soft—so squishy! Where to put a tag—and why bother? Questions like these moved scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Hopkins Marine Station and other institutions around the world to publish the first comprehensive how-to tagging paper for jellyfish researchers everywhere. This missing manual was long in the making

A wild sea nettle swims off Point Lobos near Carmel. Photo ©Bill Morgan

Tommy Knowles, a senior aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, explains why.  Historically, ocean researchers demonized jellies as “blobs of goo that hurt you,” and that interfered with scientific gear. That changed in the  latter part of the 20th century as scientists grew keen to understand entire ecosystems, not just individual plants and animals. Knowing who eats what, how, where and when, they learned, is critical for conservation.

Jellyfish, however, remained a very under-appreciated member of the ecosystem for years, largely because so little was known about them.

Senior Aquarist Tommy Knowles and his colleagues work in the lab and in the filed to advance jellyfish science. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger

“People didn’t know how to keep them alive in the lab or even on the boat,” says Knowles. Today, the field is coming into its own at a time when climate change has added urgency to the need to understand ecosystems in order to preserve ocean health.

A growing subject of interest

Understanding jellies is a concern for fisheries managers, too, since some jellyfish species prey upon the young and compete for food with the adults of commercially important fish. Other jellies impact tourism when blooms of stinging species foul beaches.

It’s not all negatives. We know that jellyfish play important roles in healthy marine ecosystems, by sheltering juvenile fish and crabs under their swimming bells, and nourishing hundreds of ocean predators. Jellies are a significant food source for ocean sunfish (the largest bony fish on the planet) and the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, California’s state marine reptile.

A barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma octopus) is tagged by a diver with an accelerometer using the “cable tie” method. Courtesy Sabrina Fossette/NOAA

As with other marine species that live and travel underwater—out of sight of human researchers—electronic data tags are useful tools for tracking jellies’ movements. Which gets back to the question: Just how do you tag a jellyfish? Read more…

Designing an animal-friendly fin tag

For over two decades, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have partnered to study some of the world’s most mysterious ocean predators at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC). Some of the latest work to come from the TRCC include an innovative tuna tag design, and a paper recently published in the journal Science detailing the discovery of a hydraulic mechanism in tuna dorsal fins, which helps them swim with speed and precision.


In his office at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, Dr. Vadim Pavlov holds a pale, sleeve-like device. Its smooth lines and soft edges make it seem more like a child’s toy than a high-tech scientific product. He slips the device over a model of a dolphin dorsal fin and “swims” it around his office, mimicking a dolphin’s movements as it leaps and twists out of the water.

The device is a prototype of a new tag design intended to track top ocean predators, such as sharks and tunas, without using pins and bolts that penetrate the fin.

“Even when the dolphin leaps, the tag stays on,” Vadim says. “But, how did we do it?”

Form and function

Vadim is one of the world’s top experts in biomimetics: the science of translating natural phenomena, such as the flow of water over a dolphin’s dorsal fin, into useful technology.

For years, he’s been tackling the challenge of tagging and tracking wildlife in the open ocean. He wanted to provide “animal-friendly” tags as an alternative to the invasive bolt tags anchored into the fins of apex marine predators such as sharks, dolphins and tunas. For Vadim, that’s not just a scientific goal; it’s personal, inspired by his experience as a free diver. “I don’t like swimming with lots of gear, so I don’t think [animals] do either,” he says. “They are very sensitive to anything on their bodies.”

Fin flow
A traditional tag can cause drag on an animal as it swims through the water.

Traditional bolt tags, a key tool in marine animal field studies for the last half century, are kind of like an ear piercing. Researchers punch through the cartilage and collagen in the dorsal fin and attach tags that can help track the animals, or collect environmental data such as salinity, temperature, and depth.

“But over time, these bolt tags do not move with the animals,” Vadim explains. “They can alter the flow of water around the animal’s bodies, and can even cause animals to turn more in one direction over time,” he says. “The faster the animal swims, the greater the energy needed to override the drag.”

Smaller animals, such as harbor porpoises and juvenile dolphins and sharks, are especially susceptible to the pitfalls of traditional bolt tags. “There’s a conflict between the animal’s biology and the technological requirements of the tag,” says Vadim. “So my job became how to reconcile that disconnect.” Read more…

After a jubilant March for Science, we’re marching on for the ocean

Silicon Valley-Jennifer Matlock with Zoe Lofgren arriving at Plaza
The Aquarium’s Jennifer Matlock (fourth from left) heads up the March for Science Silicon Valley beside Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and others. Photo © Monterey Bay Aquarium / Paul Sakuma

On Earth Day, April 22, people came together in more than 600 cities around the world to stand up for science. And Monterey Bay Aquarium was all-in, standing up for the power of science to protect our shared ocean.

At the Aquarium, to quote Executive Director Julie Packard, “science is in our DNA.” We use research to make discoveries about marine wildlife and ecosystems, to inform ocean conservation policy, and to inspire the next generation of ocean leaders. We believe that evidence-based science can inform decisions that make our world better.

To show our support, Aquarium staff marched for science in cities across the U.S., including Washington DC, Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. We went international too, with staff marching in Brussels and Amsterdam.

Even our resident African penguins joined in with a “March of the Penguins for Science,” waddling through our Kelp Forest gallery while staff—and a Facebook Live audience (now at 2.5 million, and rising)—cheered them on.

Read more…

Using science to save ocean wildlife

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a science-driven organization, and rigorous science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. Much of our research centers on marine life that visitors can also see in our exhibits – from sea otters to sharks and tunas, even our giant kelp forest. Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the past 30-plus years that is contributing to conservation of key ocean species and ecosystems.

A sea otter works to crack a mussel shell open on a rock off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Photo by Jessica Fujii

Sea otters crack open tool-use secrets

Revolutionary female scientist Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimps use tools and live within complex social systems. Our team of female researchers are walking in Jane’s footsteps with their recent studies on use of tools by another mammal: the sea otter. When observing sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula, sometimes we can hear a “crack, crack, crack!” above the roar of the tide. That sound comes from sea otters using rocks and other tools to open prey items, such as crabs or bivalves, as they float on their backs. Sea otters are avid tool users, but until recently not much was known about how sea otters choose their tools, what aspects of their environments influence tool use, or whether they teach tool use to other otters. The Aquarium’s decades of research into sea otter behavior provided years of observations of sea otter foraging and tool-use behavior, including sea otter pups pounding empty fists against their chests. Could such activity be instinctual? Research Biologist Jessica Fujii has devoted much of her young career to studying the frequency and types of tools used and whether tool use can be coded in sea otter genes. Jessica is looking ahead to see how sea otters learn, teach, and eventually master tool use in the wild.

A sea otter rests in an eelgrass bed in Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Sea otters contribute to the recovery of eelgrass and ecosystem health in this vital wetland on Monterey Bay. Photo by Ron Eby.

Sea otter surrogacy helps restore Elkhorn Slough

With 15 years of experience rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing surrogate-reared sea otters into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Moss Landing, California, the sea otter research team at the Aquarium began to wonder how and if their work was affecting the otter population there. Does releasing a few animals into the slough each year really make any difference? After crunching some serious numbers from the surrogacy program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) annual sea otter census, the researchers discovered that it did. Nearly 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in Elkhorn Slough today are there as a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program. While we’d known that sea otters served as ecosystem engineers for the giant kelp forests in Monterey Bay, we have now documented that sea otters in Elkhorn Slough are restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary. This gives us further insights into how sea otters may contribute to coastal ecosystem resilience. Read more…

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