Conservation & Science

Students take the lead to fight ocean plastic pollution

Young ocean advocates in the Monterey Bay region are behind two recent efforts to reduce single-use plastic waste. One is a vision for a month without straws. The other is a ban on plastic straws and utensils in the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

If we take a cue from kids like these, the ocean’s future looks bright.

In April 2018, Carmel food businesses will no longer be permitted to offer plastic straws, cutlery, coffee lids or containers that can’t be recycled or composted. Photo courtesy Our Seas Our Future

Plastic pollution threatens the health of marine wildlife like fish, turtles and seabirds, which often become entangled in plastic trash or eat it by mistake. And the problem is growing quickly: Since people started making plastic in the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled, and another 12 percent has been incinerated. The rest, over 4 billion metric tons, has ended up in landfills or in the natural environment—including the ocean.

On October 3, the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea banned its restaurants and food vendors from providing plastic straws and utensils. The idea for the ban stemmed from a group of Carmel River School students, encouraged by fifth grade teacher Niccole Tiffany, who were concerned about plastic pollution in the ocean. The kids took action, attending a City Council meeting and requesting a law banning single-use plastics in the city’s restaurants. One of the students who spoke during the public comment period was Shayla Dutta, age 10.

“I stand for this ban,” she said, “because I stand for the environment.” 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…

Monterey Jazz Festival hits a ‘blue note’ for a plastic-free ocean

In the dimly lit Night Club at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the Gerald Clayton Trio took their Monterey Jazz Festival audience on a musical journey. As Gerald’s fingers danced over the keys, backed by Joe Sanders on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums, minds were set free to roam—down the sticky streets of pre-dawn Manhattan, over spring-green hillsides, into the gray coastal mist.

Then, during a pause in the trio’s Friday-night performance, Gerald held up a stainless steel water bottle and channeled the ocean.

He mentioned his recent visit to the Aquarium, where he’d learned about our initiatives to reduce single-use plastic. “Let’s get rid of water bottles,” he urged the audience. “Plastic straws, no more! If you see me around, I’ll be rockin’ one of these pretty cool [reusable bottles], and I hope you do, too. Keep in mind that we want to keep living on this Earth.”

Read more…

Pulling plastic off the shelf

Cheers to a clean ocean! At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we’re working to reduce plastic pollution by making changes right here at home.

PMNM - Laysan Albatross 2016 Cleanup
An albatross investigates a plastic toothbrush that washed up on its island—and might look like food. Photo by NOAA / David Slater

Single-use plastic may be convenient for a few minutes. But once it’s out of our hands, it adds to a growing global problem that threatens the health of marine wildlife like fish, turtles and seabirds. These animals can become entangled in plastic trash like six-pack rings, plastic bags and abandoned fishing nets. As the plastic pollution breaks apart into smaller pieces called microplastics, many animals mistakenly ingest it—filling their stomachs with toxic trash instead of needed nutrition.

At the Aquarium, we’re tackling ocean plastic pollution through education, business initiatives and science-based policies. We also took a look around and identified the parts of our own operations where we could cut back on single-use plastics. These changes take creative thinking and ongoing conversations with our suppliers, staff and guests. But through trial and error, we’re making progress.

One year ago, we reported on how we’ve reduced single-use plastic in our cafe, restaurant and gift shops. Since then, we’ve challenged ourselves to go further. Next time you visit, you might spot a few upgrades.

Read more…

Pinpointing plastic’s path to the deep sea

Until now, little has been known about how microplastics move in the ocean. A new paper by our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), just published in the journal Science Advances, shows that filter-feeding animals called giant larvaceans collect and consume microplastic particles in the deep sea.

Larvaceans are transparent tunicates that live in the open sea and capture food in sticky mucus filters. Plastic particles accumulate in the cast-off mucus feeding filters and are passed into the animals’ fecal pellets, which sink rapidly through the water, potentially carrying microplastics to the deep seafloor.

Researchers at MBARI documented that tadpole-like giant larvaceans consume microplastic beaads. Photo courtesy MBARI.

The new findings contribute to an emerging picture about the ubiquitous nature of ocean plastic pollution. Over the last decade, scientists have discovered tiny pieces of plastic in all parts of the ocean—including deep-sea mud. One recent study documented microplastic fibers in deep-sea sediments at levels four times greater than an earlier study had found in surface waters. Plastic has also been discovered in the tissues of animals at the base of the ocean food web. Another just-published study found that fish confuse plastic particles with real food items because it smells just like organic matter in the ocean.

Despite their name, giant larvaceans are less than 10 millimeters (4 inches) long, and look somewhat like transparent tadpoles. Their mucus filters—called “houses” because the larvaceans live inside them—can be more than 1 meter (3 feet) across. These filters trap tiny particles of drifting debris, which the larvacean eats. When a larvacean’s house becomes clogged with debris, the animal abandons the structure and it sinks toward the seafloor.

Principal Engineer Kakani Katija studies giant larvaceans during field expeditions in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy MBARI.

In early 2016, MBARI Principal Engineer Kakani Katija was planning an experiment using the DeepPIV system to figure out how quickly giant larvaceans could filter seawater, and what size particles they could capture in their filters. Other researchers have tried to answer these questions in the laboratory by placing tiny plastic beads into tanks with smaller larvaceans. Because giant larvacean houses are too big to study in the lab, Kakani decided to perform similar experiments in the open ocean, using MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

When she discussed this experiment with Postdoctoral Fellow Anela Choy—who studies the movement of plastic through the ocean—they realized that in-situ feeding experiments using plastic beads could also shine light on the fate of microplastics in the deep sea. Read more…

Aquariums join forces to combat plastic pollution

Nineteen aquariums across the United States have joined forces in a new Aquarium Conservation Partnership to address one of the gravest threats facing ocean and freshwater animals: plastic pollution.

The partners just launched a nationwide consumer campaign, “In Our Hands,” and made their own business commitment to drive a shift away from single-use plastic among aquarium visitors, in their communities and beyond.

Julie Packard sports a reusable shopping bag.

“The public trusts aquariums to do what’s right for the health of the ocean and for ocean wildlife,” said Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We’re just beginning to understand the full impacts of ocean plastic pollution on ecosystems, marine life and human health. But we already know enough to say that now is the time to act.”

Aquariums have replaced plastic straws with paper straws. Many also sell reusable glass and metal straws in their gift stores.

Through the “In Our Hands” campaign, the aquariums hope to empower their 20 million visitors, along with millions more people in their communities. The campaign focuses on innovative alternatives, and includes a website that encourages viewers learn more about the growing plastic pollution problem and be a part of the solution.

All 19 partner aquariums are shifting away from single-use plastic in their own operations. As the campaign launches, they’ve already cut out all plastic straws and single-use plastic bags. They have also committed to significantly reduce or eliminate plastic beverage bottles by December 2020, and showcase innovative alternatives to single-use plastic in their facilities. Read more…

Teens tackle an unlikely source of plastic pollution: wayward golf balls

In the chilly Pacific waters off Carmel Beach, Alex Weber was practicing holding her breath and diving in search of jade in May 2016. Swimming down to the seafloor, she instead made a surprising discovery: a trove of lost golf balls. Some were practically new; others might have dated back decades.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston hold a few of the thousands of errant golf balls they’ve recovered from Carmel Bay.

Alex, a lifelong Californian who is now 17, had volunteered in the past for beach cleanups, scouring the shore with a particular eye for plastic pellets.

“I’d been spending so much time in the sand picking up tiny micro-plastics. I thought these golf balls would make such a big difference,” she says.

She decided to make a practice of kayaking and swimming out to collect them in mesh “goodie bags”—the kind she’s since found can hold some 30 pounds of balls each.

Her efforts drew the attention of her 16-year-old high school classmate Jack Johnston.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston inspired a coalition to carry on the clean-up effort.

“I was at the beach the same day Alex pulled out that first load, and thought, ‘What is happening? Are those just in our ocean?’ I immediately wanted to get involved,” he says.

The two have since collected close to 10,000 golf balls from Carmel Bay. Jack, a Canadian transplant who took to the frigid waters around the Monterey Peninsula long before he acquired his first wetsuit, says—depending on the weather —a day’s haul might range from several hundred to well over a thousand balls.

The Weber family’s garage is now stacked with baskets full of golf balls, which Alex and Jack plan to recycle or transform into an art project. In a testament to how much two determined teens can accomplish, their labors have also rippled into a collaborative undertaking that has drawn together federal officials, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and nearby Pebble Beach Golf Links. Read more…

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