Conservation & Science

A last-ditch effort to save the vaquita

Spotting a vaquita in the northern Gulf of California is a bit like glimpsing a snow leopard in the Himalayas. Some local fishermen told a reporter they’ve never seen a vaquita—and doubt they even exist.

One day soon, they might be right. But not if a coalition of experts, working with the Mexican government, can help it.

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Vaquita observers use binoculars capable of spotting vaquitas almost 2 miles away. Photo by NOAA Fisheries/Barbara Taylor

Barbara Taylor is one of the few people who’s seen a vaquita—hundreds of them, she says, in her 20 years doing population surveys. As a conservation biologist and a long-time member of the vaquita recovery team, Barbara has the training, and the powerful binoculars, to locate the small porpoises.

When vaquitas surface to breathe, they do it subtly and disappear quickly; and they tend to keep their distance from boats. “They are almost impossible to see from a little panga on the water,” she says.

But there’s another reason few people have encountered vaquitas: They’re the most highly endangered marine mammal species on Earth. These shy, small porpoises were only discovered in the 1950s. The population dropped from an estimated 567, when Barbara’s team first surveyed them in the late 1990s, to fewer than 60 last year. (UPDATE: According to a report published Feb. 1, the population is now estimated at only 30 individuals.)

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A year of hope for the global ocean

Say what you will about 2016—the world made some big waves to protect the ocean. As the sun sets on this year, let’s reflect on its brightest marine moments:

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The Aquarium and our partners campaigned across the state for Prop 67.

California votes to ban single-use plastic bags

November brought a big ballot win for ocean health. Thanks to voters, California now has the nation’s first law banning single-use plastic carryout bags statewide.

Working with our partners, the Aquarium campaigned in support of Proposition 67, the California ballot measure to uphold the statewide bag ban. We also urged a NO vote on the deceptive Proposition 65, which could have further delayed the ban’s implementation.

Voters agreed, approving Proposition 67 and rejecting Proposition 65. And just like that, single-use plastic carryout bags are now a thing of California’s past. The new law could prevent billions of plastic bags from polluting our ocean each year—which means a cleaner future for marine wildlife and coastal communities.

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Our best Conservation & Science stories of 2016

It’s been an exciting year for ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We’ve shared how our care for the animals in our living collections—including snowy ploverscomb jellies, ocean sunfish and Pacific seahorses—contibutes to the conservation of their wild kin.

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The Aquarium helps rehabilitate threatened Western snowy plovers.

We’ve visited the Canadian cousins of Monterey Bay’s sea otters, explored how sea otters use tools, and assisted scientists working to decode the sea otter genome.

We’ve collaborated with our colleagues in Baja, Mexico on a number of conservation missions—one of them involving ancient shark mummies. And we joined forces with U.S. aquariums and zoos to call for stronger protections for the endangered vaquita porpoises of the Gulf of California.

As 2016 comes to a close, let’s look back at the top 10 highlights from this blog:

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A white shark approaches schooling sardines.

10. Camera to Crack a White Shark MysteryOur senior reseach scientist teamed up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalled. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

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Taking a stand against shady seafood

The holidays came early for seafood lovers. Thanks to a new federal initiative, Americans will soon know more about where our imported seafood comes from.

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Customers use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide at a California fish market.

On Dec. 8, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a “traceability” program that will track certain seafood imports at risk of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. More than 90 percent of the seafood available to consumers in the United States is imported.

Traceability allows regulators to electronically track seafood through the supply chain—from the moment it’s wild-caught or farm-harvested, to the U.S.border. This new information will help authorities keep illegal seafood products out of the U.S., and level the playing field for American fishermen who follow the rules. And, it also makes it easier for businesses and consumers to support seafood that was produced sustainably.

As we reported last February, traceability can also cut down on seafood fraud, which happens when seafood labels mislead consumers about the identity or source of their seafood.

Monterey Bay Aquarium works globally, through industry-led coalitions and other partnerships, to improve traceability in Southeast Asia, where much of the world’s seafood is produced.     Read more…

Honoring Congressman Sam Farr’s ocean legacy

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A surfbird hunts for prey in a Monterey Bay tide pool.

As a kid in the 1940s, Sam Farr used to frequent the tide pools on Carmel Beach, exploring and playing with the multitude of colorful creatures that lived there. But when he returned as an adult with his young daughter in tow, the tide pools weren’t quite how he remembered them.

“Not a single animal was there,” he recalls. “Not a sea urchin, not a sea anemone, not a hermit crab.”

The experience added to Farr’s already deep-seated belief that ocean health is crucial to the well-being of our planet and ourselves. First as a California State Assemblyman from 1980-1993, and then as a U.S. Congressman from 1993 to the present, he acted on that belief by creating state and federal legislation to protect our ocean and coast, and to support ocean research along Monterey Bay.

Now, after more than 40 years of public service, Farr is returning from Washington, D.C. to his home in Carmel, California to, in his words, “become a full-time grandfather” to his daughter Jessica’s children, Ella and Zachary.

On Dec. 1, 2016, Monterey Bay Aquarium honored Sam Farr’s lifelong contributions to ocean conservation at a reception for community leaders and philanthropists.

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The world is moving forward on climate

From Nov. 7-18, 2016, delegates from the world’s nations gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. With the Paris Agreement—the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—now in effect, nations focused on how to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s atmospheric temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s director of science, attended the conference to address how carbon emissions affect ocean health. Here, Kyle shares his reflections about the conference.


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A souk selling potpourri, spices, and yarn in the Medina district of Marrakech.

The skylines of Marrakech are framed by stark contrasts. There is the adobe-pink Medina, the ancient city and the heart of Marrakech; modern hotels and bustling urban roundabouts; and the massive, snow-capped Atlas Mountains that hold back the Sahara Desert. The people of Marrakech are mostly of Berber ethnic heritage, and the locals I met were exceedingly conversational, kind and curious.

Nearly 30,000 delegates, speakers, students and emissaries from scores of countries passed through security checkpoints to the tent city where the COP22 meetings were held. We were on the outskirts of town, in a district called Bab Ighli, next to extensive royal olive groves. The tent “rooms”—which became increasingly hot as the day went on,  with crowds of up to a few hundred people per room—were appropriately named after the seas of the world: Arctic, Mediterranean, Caribbean.

Following the landmark agreement at last year’s U.N. climate change conference in Paris (COP21), the Marrakech conference was expected to be a quieter, less exciting gathering focused on the business of implementing the Paris accord. But a few things happened on the way to Marrakech that elevated its importance.

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Marine protected areas: a smart approach

Last August, U.S. President Barack Obama created (what was then) the largest protected area on Earth.

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Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo by NOAA

Obama’s executive order, which came after numerous public meetings, more than quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The 500,000-square-mile area, surrounding a chain of northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is now protected from commercial fishing and resource extraction.

The monument hosts an abundance and diversity of wildlife, much of it unique to the area. Its expansion was an important step toward protecting more of the global oceans, and showing the world that the United States is committed to doing its part in marine protection.

While Papahānaumokuākea boasts a wide variety of ocean life, marine biodiversity—according to a new study co-authored by Kyle Van Houtan, director of science at Monterey Bay Aquarium—is even higher in some other parts of the ocean.

His paper affirms that marine protected areas are an effective tool for protecting ocean life in the face of rapidly accelerating global change. However, much work remains ahead.

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