Conservation & Science

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.

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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.

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These stainless steel bottles in the Aquarium’s cafe have been sanitized and filled with chilled, filtered water.

A plastic-free beverage case

Let’s start with the substance that defines aquariums: water.

In light of the growing scientific evidence that plastic pollution is harming the ocean animals we love, we stopped selling water in plastic bottles. Our guests, however, let us know they wanted to be able to purchase water during their visits to the Aquarium. We began carrying boxed water, with 74 percent plant-based packaging—but the other 26 percent included plastic. We knew we could do better.

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Yogurt parfaits are now made in-house and served in reusable glass jars.

Earlier this year, we removed the boxed water and replaced it with two new products: recyclable aluminum water bottles, and stainless steel reusable bottles filled with filtered water. Guests can replenish them at the water refilling stations on the Aquarium floor.

We also sell teas and sodas in recyclable glass. We’ve replaced plastic yogurt cups with house-made parfaits in canning jars. And we now serve all coffee drinks in reusable mugs, for an ocean-friendly wake-me-up.

Solving the plastic puzzle

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These toys feature new packaging with significantly less plastic.

Many of our guests choose to remember their visit with a souvenir from the gift shop—like a plush sea otter to snuggle or a ballcap for the beach. We want these products to be a lasting reminder of our shared responsibility to protect the ocean.

That’s why we’ve been working with our retail and culinary partner, Service Systems Associates (SSA), to minimize the plastic packaging around the products we sell. Less than 7% of our retail items are packaged with single-use plastic; we aim to further reduce this number through 2021.

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The manufacturer of these puzzles ditched the plastic cellophane, instead keeping the boxes closed with stickers.

That means reaching out to product manufacturers to discuss alternative packaging—and several have embraced the challenge. One toy maker agreed to change the packaging on 26 items arriving in SSA locations across the country this summer, preventing about 9,000 pounds of single-use plastic waste. Another made the switch from cellophane to stickers to keep its puzzle boxes closed. A third company is developing new packaging to eliminate the plastic casing around its personalized wooden pens.

That’ll come in handy when you sign a postcard from our dazzling Monterey Bay.

Turning the tide on plastic

The latest push to reduce single-use plastic is part of a collective wave. A coalition of 19 U.S. aquariums, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, have joined together to raise public awareness of plastic pollution in freshwater and ocean habitats.

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By switching to reusables, we can make a difference for the ocean.

With that effort comes a commitment to reduce single-use plastics within our own walls, starting with bags, straws and beverage bottles.

We all share responsibility for protecting our blue planet. The everyday choices we make, and the products we choose, are opportunities to protect marine wildlife and habitats. Aquariums are working together to make the right decisions easier—driven by the shared belief that the solution to the plastic problem is in our hands.

We hope to prevent more plastic from reaching the ocean, making a healthier home for marine animals like turtles, puffins and sea lions. You can help! Join our aquarium community, say “no thanks” to single-use plastics, and choose reusable alternatives.


Learn how plastic pollution impacts animals, our ocean and us at www.ourhands.org.

 

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…

A global breakthrough for ocean health

Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard was in New York City from June 5-9 to attend the United Nations’ first-ever Ocean Conference. Aquarium staff members presented at several key sessions, on issues ranging from ocean acidification and plastic pollution to sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Here, Julie reports on the conference’s significant progress toward ocean health.

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Julie Packard and Prince Albert of Monaco at the UN Ocean Conference in New York City.

Last week, the United Nations Headquarters in New York City was especially blue, and the ocean was on everyone’s mind. Inside and out, the building was adorned with ocean-themed sculptures and stunning marine-life photographs. The halls were filled with noted ocean conservation leaders including Sylvia Earle, Sir Richard Branson and Prince Albert of Monaco.

They joined representatives from governments, organizations and businesses around the world, who had gathered for the first-ever UN Ocean Conference with one goal in mind: to protect the sea that supports all life on our planet.

I attended as part of our Monterey Bay Aquarium team, to listen, meet with delegates and call for action on three critical fronts: environmental and social sustainability of global fisheries and aquaculture; steps to address the causes and impacts of climate change and ocean acidification; and new commitments to reduce the flow of plastic pollution from land to sea.

Exhibitions during The Ocean Conference. Photo ©OPGAArianaLindquist
Exhibitions during The Ocean Conference. Photo ©OPGA Ariana Lindquist

It was gratifying to see the tangible results of our team’s participation in the growing collaborations among NGOs, governments and business leaders. We heard from many attendees that the Aquarium’s presence—and our ideas—have had a real impact.

On June 9, the final day of the conference, the UN’s 193 member nations unanimously approved a global call to action that mirrors the Aquarium’s own ocean conservation goals. They agreed “to act decisively and urgently [for ocean health], convinced that our collective action will make a meaningful difference to our people, to our planet and to our prosperity.”

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Jenn Kemmerly speaks at the UN Ocean Conference Partnership Dialogue, “Making Fisheries Sustainable.”

Countries resolved to improve fisheries management and restore fish stocks to sustainable levels, end harmful fisheries subsidies and crack down on illegal fishing. They agreed to pursue solutions for ocean acidification, rising sea levels and ocean warming—with most nations reaffirming their commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change as an important roadmap toward a more stable planet. And they pledged to adopt new strategies to reduce the flow of single-use plastics, like disposable bags and cutlery, that ultimately make their way to the ocean.

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Josh Madeira, the Aquarium’s federal policy manager, delivers remarks at the UN Ocean Conference plenary session.

“The Ocean Conference has changed our relationship with the ocean,” Peter Thomson, president of the UN General Assembly, told the delegates. “Henceforth none can say they were not aware of the harm humanity has done to the ocean’s health. We are now working around the world to restore a relationship of balance and respect towards the ocean.”

The first Ocean Conference was convened in support of the updated sustainable development goals adopted by the UN in 2015, which included a new Goal 14: “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” by 2030.

The global community is joining together for the ocean, the heart of Earth’s climate system. The Aquarium will continue to be part of the conversation, working with a growing network of government, NGO and business partners to make a difference for the future of our ocean.

Learn more about Conservation and Science at Monterey Bay Aquarium.


Featured photo: Grey reef sharks and colorful schools of​ ​​anthias in the waters of Jarvis Island, Pacific Remote Island Areas Marine National Monument. Photo by Kelvin Gorospe  via CC BY 2.0.

World leaders commit to conservation at first U.N. Ocean Conference

Today, June 8, is World Oceans Day. And there may be nowhere on Earth that offers more hope for the global ocean than at the United Nations Ocean Conference in New York City.

Amina Mohammed, Deputy-Secretary-General of the United Nations (left) and Catherine Pollard, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly explore Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibits via virtual reality in the Seafood Watch tent at the Ocean Festival in New York City. Photo by © OPGA/Ariana Lindquist

This morning at U.N. Headquarters, actor and ocean activist Leonardo DiCaprio called on the world’s nations to take action for our ocean. Director James Cameron presented a powerful short film by his Avatar Alliance Foundation, “What Would the Ocean Say?” And Adidas executive Eric Liedtke said his company aims to eliminate virgin plastic fiber from its supply chain.

In other words, people from across all sectors of society are coming together to address the most pressing challenges facing our global ocean. Pioneering chemist and astronaut Cady Coleman put the challenge this way: “We are, all of us, the crew of Spaceship Earth. This is our charter, and we must do the work.”

The power of partnership

A delegation from Monterey Bay Aquarium is in New York City this week to help do that work. We’re partnering with organizations, governments and businesses to reduce plastic pollution, address ocean acidification and improve the sustainability of global fisheries and aquaculture.

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Boats cruise along New York City’s East River in Lower Manhattan as part of the Ocean March on June 4, 2017.

That spirit of partnership is the heart and the promise of the U.N. Ocean Conference. “I’m sure that you’re aware that the ocean is in deep trouble,” said Peter Thomson, president of the U.N. General Assembly. “The good news is that we’re working on solutions.”

Building up to the conference, the UN invited organizations, communities, agencies and businesses to register their ocean action pledges. The Aquarium is involved with nearly a dozen of these voluntary commitments, working with partners worldwide to support conservation efforts at the core of our mission. Among them: Read more…

We’re a voice for the sea at the first-ever United Nations Ocean Conference

The ocean produces half the oxygen we breathe, regulates climate by absorbing atmospheric carbon, and is the primary source of protein for 3.5 billion people. More than 80 percent of the Earth’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast. But these and other critical benefits are fast eroding as growing human needs strain the ocean’s living systems.

The_Oceans_Conference_Logo_Horiz_ENFrom June 5-9, the United Nations will take on the challenge when it hosts its first Ocean Conference at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City—a global gathering focused on protecting the ocean resources so vital to human survival.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium will play a significant role in the conference, advocating for policies to reduce single-use plastic, new commitments that promote sustainable international fisheries, and concerted action to tackle ocean acidification and other impacts of climate change.

“The ocean plays a vital role in enabling life on Earth to exist, yet ocean health has been ignored for too long by international decision-makers,” says Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard. “The U.N. Ocean Conference is a signal that things are changing. We’ll be there as a voice for the living ocean on which our future depends.”

Julie notes that the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean mirrors the priorities that Monterey Bay Aquarium works to advance, in the United States and around the world. Key staff will contribute to Ocean Conference forums on critical issues, including:

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A Monterey Bay fishing boat brings in its catch. Photo ©Steve Kepple

Improving the sustainability of global fisheries

Through our Seafood Watch program and extensive international policy work, the aquarium plays a respected and influential role – among governments, major businesses, producers and consumers – in shifting global seafood production in more sustainable directions.

As the conference begins, Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard will be part of a World Economic Forum announcement and discussion about new commitments from major seafood businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations to end illegal, unregulated and unreported tuna fishing around the world.

On Wednesday, June 7, Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of global fisheries and aquaculture for the Aquarium, will speak on a panel focused on making fisheries sustainable.

Taking action to combat ocean acidification

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Oyster farmers along the U.S. West Coast have already begun to see the impacts of ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification, a result of fossil fuel burning, is making it difficult for marine animals to build their shells. That includes some species of plankton, the base of the ocean food web.

The Aquarium was an early supporter of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification, and will represent the founding partners – British Columbia, and the U.S. states of California, Oregon and Washington – on Thursday, June 8.

Margaret Spring, our vice president of conservation and science and chief conservation officer, will speak on a panel addressing ocean acidification action plans to protect vulnerable resources.

Reducing the sources of plastic pollution

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The passage of California’s Proposition 67 will prevent the use of billions of plastic carryout bags each year.

Last year, we championed California’s first-in-the-nation statewide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags. This summer, we’ll launch a collaborative campaign involving 20 leading North American aquariums to reduce consumer demand for single-use plastic products – from drinking straws to shopping bags.

On Monday, June 5, Aimee David, Aquarium Director of Ocean Conservation Policy Strategies, will address efforts to tackle marine debris: internationally, nationally and at United Nations Headquarters. The panel, hosted by Costa Rica, features speakers from the United Nations Environment Programme, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Zoological Society of London.

Celebrating the ocean – in New York and beyond

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Working together, we can protect the health of the ocean for future generations. Photo by ©Jim Capwell / http://www.divecentral.com

On Sunday, June 4, our Seafood Watch team will be part of a day-long World Ocean Festival, a free event on Governors Island in New York Harbor that precedes Monday’s opening of the U.N. Ocean Conference. We’ll host a public exhibit space about sustainable fisheries and aquaculture opportunities, and a Seafood Watch expert will be part of a sustainable seafood presentation during the festival.

And in partnership with the U.N. Environment Program, the International Program on the State of the Ocean, Ocean Conservancy and the Zoological Society of London, we will promote the #OneLess initiative, aimed at inspiring Ocean Conference delegates and the public to reduce single-use plastic products like water bottles. The campaign will distribute reusable water bottles to conference attendees, and will encourage delegates to promote policies that reduce our reliance on single-use plastic products.

World leaders are coming together this week to address the biggest threats to our shared global ocean, but we all have a role to play. You can make a difference through small changes, such as driving less, switching to reusable water bottles and following Seafood Watch recommendations.

We hope you’ll join us in protecting our living ocean, on which all life depends.


Featured image: “United Nations New York City” by Anthony Quintano is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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