Conservation & Science

The deep impact of microplastic

 

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There’s a vast ecosystem stretching far below the ocean’s surface — one where the light dims, the pressure mounts, and life takes on forms that can seem downright alien. But even there, a place that seems a world apart from human society, our plastic trash is building up.

Scientists from the Aquarium and MBARI sampled microplastic pollution in the deep waters of Monterey Bay using the ROV Ventana. Photo courtesy MBARI

In the deep sea, it’s a challenge to study where that plastic accumulates and how it affects animals. So scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and our partners at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) launched an ambitious collaboration.

The resulting study, which examined microplastic in the waters of Monterey Bay, was published June 6 in the journal Scientific Reports.

“We designed this study to answer a fundamental gap in our knowledge of marine plastic once it reaches the ocean,” says lead author Anela Choy, a former MBARI researcher and now a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

MBARI researchers collected larvaceans and their mucus feeding filters using its remotely operated vehicles. Photo courtesy MBARI.

The research team gathered data by using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), robotic submarines designed by MBARI engineers, to collect water samples at depths from 200 to 600 meters (about 650 to 2,000 feet).

They also searched for plastic in animals with important roles in the marine food web: pelagic red crabs; and tadpole-like creatures called giant larvaceans, which surround themselves with clouds of mucus that capture food — and, as the researchers discovered, plastic.

“Problems like this are extremely complicated. To try and figure out how to solve them, you need a lot of different tools,” says Aquarium Chief Scientist Kyle Van Houtan, who co-authored the paper with Anela and nine others, tapping fields from physical chemistry to marine ecology. Read more…

Counting fish like a BOSS

Counting fish in the ocean isn’t easy—particularly when they swim among jagged rocks and along undersea cliffs hundreds of feet below the waves. To help, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has developed a new camera system called the Benthic Observation Survey System, or BOSS.

The BOSS camera design was fine-tuned, including simulated deployment in MBARI’s test tank, before it was placed in the ocean. BOSS photos ©MBARI

A five-foot metal cylinder that features an array of cameras and lights, the BOSS is designed to be lowered from a ship to the seafloor and land upright on rocky terrain. There, it will help scientists survey fish populations using eight high-definition video cameras.

Researchers and policymakers need this technology to find out more about life in the ocean and how to better protect it. MBARI developed the BOSS with input from investigators at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and The Nature Conservancy .

“The scientists I’m working with are looking at areas that previously were heavily fished out,” explains MBARI staff engineer Chad Kecy, who led the effort to design and build the BOSS. Chad and his colleagues are trying to get a better understanding of how fish populations are recovering in these areas, what species are present, how big they are and where they swim.

Chad likes the challenge of solving problems on a tight timeline. The BOSS had to be built and tested in a matter of months, because the scientists who planned to deploy it already had research trips scheduled on boats that could not wait.

“Now the scientists are busy analyzing all this video they were able to capture with the tool that we developed,” Chad says.

Mary Gleason, science director for The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program and who helped develop the BOSS, says it can fill important gaps in existing data, based on its inaugural voyage: “We showed that we could get 400 video surveys done across 300 miles of coastline during one three-week cruise. So that’s pretty efficient in terms of data quantity.”

Read more…

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.

Read more…

Safeguarding seamounts: the hidden Yosemites of the deep

At the bottom of the ocean, amid vast, pitch-dark expanses of mud, there are a few exceptional, rocky places: undersea mountains. Here, the muddy seafloor and burrowing worms give way to bedrock and beautiful gardens of corals and sponges.

Seamounts are islands of biological diversity in the deep sea, home to rich marine communities of often long-lived animals. Photo courtesy MBARI/NOAA

Seamounts, as these peaks are known, “are the Yosemites of the deep sea that nobody sees,” says Dr. Jim Barry, a marine ecologist at MBARI—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Under the surface, right off the horizon, is this wonderful world that’s been developing, slowly but surely, like a sequoia forest.”

Some seamounts are covered with ancient corals and deep-sea sponges that stand a meter tall and resemble oak trees. They’re also home to anemones, clams, small crustaceans and all manner of fishes. Many of these creatures rely on smell instead of vision to find food in these inky waters, at least half a mile deep.

Life on seamounts is of interest to marine scientists and to biotech researchers who hope to develop new pharmaceutical products based on properties in sponges, mussels and microbes. Photo courtesy MBARI

Seamounts are a frontier for scientific discovery, both for basic research, designed to fill knowledge gaps, and for applied research aiming to solve practical problems. Biotech companies, for instance, are interested in unique chemicals produced by deep-sea microbes, sponges, and mussels, which hint at pharmaceutical applications from antibiotics to fighting cancer.

Only a few seamounts are legally protected, like national parks are on land. One of those is Davidson Seamount, 80 miles southwest of Monterey and part of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. But the Trump administration is in the process of reviewing Davidson Seamount’s designation, with an eye for potentially stripping its protection and opening it up for new offshore oil and gas drilling. Read more…

The world unites to protect Our Ocean

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Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the Our Ocean conference. ©European Union, 2017

Each year, global leaders gather at the Our Ocean conference, pledging meaningful actions to protect the health of the global ocean. This year, on the Mediterranean island of Malta, Monterey Bay Aquarium was at the heart of several key initiatives addressing fisheries, aquaculture and ocean plastic pollution.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who launched the event in 2014, announced a new partnership between the Aquarium and the Carnegie Endowment for International PeaceThrough the Southeast Asia Fisheries and Aquaculture Initiative, we’ll work with regional governments and seafood producers in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines to overcome obstacles to sustainable seafood production.

“Sustainable fishing is good for jobs and good for the environment at the same time,” Kerry said. “It’s not a competition between the two.”

Read more…

Action alert: Help protect our national marine sanctuaries  

Our blue parks are a source of pride for Californians, and all Americans. They are living proof that the sustainable use of our ocean goes hand in hand with robust coastal economies, valuable fisheries and thriving marine habitats.

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A white shark swims in the nutrient-rich waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Steven K. Webster/Monterey Bay Aquarium

But millions of acres of protected U.S. waters could be opened up for offshore oil and gas drilling, following an executive order issued in April, titled “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.”

Now is the time to speak up in defense of our national marine sanctuaries and monuments. A 30-day public comment period, which opened up in late June, is part of a federal review called for by the executive order.

UPDATE: The deadline for public comments has been extended. We now have until August 14 to make our voices heard. 

1. Add your comment to the Federal Register.

2. Check out our suggested talking points below.

The federal review targets parts of four national marine sanctuaries in California— Monterey Bay, Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones and Channel Islands—along with seven other sanctuaries and monuments in U.S. waters.

American national marine sanctuaries were created with bipartisan support, extensive scientific input and broad community participation. They generate billions of dollars each year, driving coastal tourism and supporting healthy fisheries.

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Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey is one example of the economic benefits of our national marine sanctuaries. Photo ©Steve Kepple

“Monterey Bay Aquarium will do all we can to support our national marine sanctuaries, and to work for policies that protect vulnerable coastal communities from the threats that accompany offshore oil and gas development,” Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard said.

The public comment period is open through August 14. Please lend your voice! Visit the Federal Register Comment Page and tell the White House why the U.S. must continue to protect our precious national marine sanctuaries and monuments.

Here are some suggested points for your public comment: Read more…

Julie Packard: March for Science – and a livable planet

Executive Director Julie Packard. Photo © Corey Arnold

Take a deep breath. Now, breathe again.

You can thank the ocean for that second breath, and thank science for helping us understand all the ocean brings to our lives.

Phytoplankton – microscopic plants that draw energy from the sun – produce at least half the oxygen in the atmosphere. But the ocean also absorbs much of the carbon dioxide we produce by burning fossil fuels. The resulting chemical changes make seawater more acidic.

The Pacific Ocean from space. Photo courtesy NASA.

This is a life-and-death matter, because acidification limits the ability of plankton to produce the oxygen on which our survival depends. How quickly is this happening? How can we avert the consequences?

Science can help us understand, and point the way to solutions.

That’s why the Monterey Bay Aquarium is joining other science organizations, experts and individuals around the world on Earth Day, April 22, to publicly affirm the vital role science plays in our lives, and nurture the curiosity of young people eager to understand how our world works.

Read more…

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