Tiny orange fish with white stripes dart between the waving tentacles of a stinging anemone. Kids in the Aquarium’s Splash Zone galleries don’t pay much attention to the sign identifying them as clown anemonefish — they already know them by a different name. “Nemo!”
Thirteen years after the release of Finding Nemo, the lovable fish is back on the big screen. But the star of Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel, is the forgetful blue tang who sets off to find her long-lost family. (“Dory!” is another common sound in our Splash Zone, as kids recognize the blue tangs on exhibit.)
The adventures of Dory, Nemo and their friends take them to the Marine Life Institute, a fictional aquarium and ocean conservation center inspired, in part, by Monterey Bay Aquarium. Disney•Pixar animators worked with Aquarium staff for several years, researching details that would help bring the film’s settings and characters—like Hank, the friendly “setpipus”—to life.
A Pacific leatherback turtle in Monterey Bay breaks the surface about every two hours, taking a deep breath of air before going back under to hunt for jellyfish. Leatherbacks use their powerful flippers to propel themselves forward and grab a gelatinous mouthful.
Only it might not be a jellyfish.
It might be a plastic bag, perhaps one of the 13 billion disposable grocery bags that Californians use each year. Scientists are finding single-use bags, cosmetic microbeads and other types of plastic litter throughout the ocean, even in the deepest submarine canyons. Globally, an estimated 8 million metric tons reach the ocean every year.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, persisting in the environment. That makes plastic pollution a major threat to marine ecosystems—and sea turtles are among the most vulnerable ocean animals.
“The enormity of the problem, the scale of the pollution and the vast impact have only really been appreciated in the last decade,” says Kyle Van Houtan, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s director of science. “Sea turtles are good indicators of the challenges the ocean faces right now.”
Above the sparkling waves of the Pacific, Monterey Bay Aquarium inspires nearly two million visitors each year to care more — and do more — to protect the health of the ocean.
Toward that end, Letise LaFeir, the Aquarium’s California ocean policy manager, focuses much of her energy on decisions made in the state capital, almost 200 miles to the northeast.
Drawing from her experience in marine science, ocean policy, education and public outreach, Letise encourages legislative and government officials to keep up California’s leadership on ocean and coastal health issues.
We asked her to tell us more about two major issues she’s working on: climate change and ocean plastic pollution.
What’s your role at the aquarium, as it relates to climate change?
Communicating about climate change, making sure people get it, is a top priority to help drive action on this issue. It’s important, and it’s affecting us right now.
Organizations like ours, and the vast majority of scientists, agree that climate change is happening, and that humans are causing it. But we still have hurdles to get over with particular policymakers. There are some who understand, and are looking for solutions and guidance. Others, unfortunately, are still saying climate change isn’t real or isn’t our problem.
At a high level, we’re getting certain policymakers to just accept that we’re already seeing and feeling the impacts of a changing climate, and that planning sooner rather than later will actually be a benefit in the long run — even if that individual policymaker isn’t here to see that benefit.
Then we help them move from understanding to action. Part of the work we do is putting the experts in front of policymakers to answer very specific questions to help them make and implement their decisions.
Plastic is one of the most common materials in our daily lives. We drink from plastic cups, wear clothing made of plastic fibers and buy products sealed in plastic packaging. We’re surrounded by these petrochemical-based polymers, but we don’t yet fully understand them. Especially when it comes to questions about how plastic trash affects the ocean environment — and our own health.
Dr. Roland Geyer, associate professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has investigated just how much plastic is flowing to the sea, and where it’s coming from.
Using solid waste data from 2010, he calculated that 192 coastal countries produced 275 million metric tons of plastic waste that year. Of that amount, he estimates 8 million metric tons entered the ocean — enough to cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep in plastic marine debris. And that input rate is likely increasing each year.
What can we do about it? Roland sees two big opportunities for change in California: Reducing litter, and producing less plastic waste in the first place.
Congress and the White House just cooperated—with remarkable bipartisan speed—to eliminate a source of plastic pollution in the ocean. It’s a welcome development, and one that offers hope for action to eliminate even greater volumes of plastic trash that threatens marine life and human health.
Microbeads are tiny plastic balls often used as exfoliants in everything from soap and facial scrub to toothpaste. When we rinse them off, they wash down the drain and flow into the ocean, lakes and rivers, where they can absorb other pollutants such as DDT and PCBs. Fish and other marine animals often mistake microbeads for food, concentrating these toxins up the food chain—potentially ending up in seafood on our plates.
Monterey Bay Aquarium and other leading public aquariums nationwide supported the passage of statewide microbeads bans in California and in other states. The California law set the nation’s highest bar on restricting such products, and the variations in bills introduced or enacted at the state level fueled support for H.R. 1321. At the federal level, we worked to strengthen the language of the Microbead-Free Waters Act, urged Congress to pass the bill and asked President Obama to sign it into law.
The California State Capitol is 75 miles from the coast, but the laws forged there can have big impacts on the health of the ocean. That’s why the Monterey Bay Aquarium supported a half-dozen ocean-related bills during the 2015 legislative session. Many were signed into law.
The Aquarium also hosts the annual Ocean Day California reception in Sacramento, bringing together California legislators, state administrators, businesspeople and ocean conservation leaders to celebrate conservation of the ocean. Each year we honor California ocean champions who took action to advance marine and coastal health – including backers of important legislation.
Here’s our final scorecard for the 2015 legislative session.
Ocean issues were front and center this week when Secretary of State John Kerry joined other world leaders this week in Valparaiso, Chile for the second Our Ocean Conference. The United States and other coastal nations made significant commitments to improve the health and sustainable use of our global seas.
We’re pleased to see that many of these commitments tackle some of the Aquarium’s Conservation & Science priorities: promoting marine protected areas, advancing sustainable fisheries, reducing ocean plastic pollution and slowing climate change. Policy Director Aimee David represented the Aquarium at the conference.
“It’s so encouraging to see Secretary Kerry, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and other global leaders come together to acknowledge how important the ocean is to our future,” Aimee says. “More importantly, they’ve committed to specific, concrete actions that address the most serious challenges facing the ocean today.” Among the highlights:
From August 23 through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary will host Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlights the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay each summer, and celebrates an ocean conservation success story of global significance. We’re publishing guest commentaries about conservation efforts that contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet. The first is from Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard.
We’ve always known that Monterey Bay is a unique and special place for marine life. That’s what allowed us to create an entire aquarium focused on the wildlife and habitats found in the bay when we opened 31 years ago. It’s why the bay became the largest national marine sanctuary in the continental United States, and why millions of people come here to experience the spectacle of ocean wildlife, whether on a scuba dive, atop a kayak or from shore.
Now, thanks to an unprecedented series of live prime-time broadcasts, PBS and the BBC will tell the bay’s remarkable story in spectacular fashion to millions of people across the United States and Great Britain. We’re thrilled to be the studios from which the broadcasts of Big Blue Live originate – and thrilled that these public broadcasting leaders recognize that the comeback of marine life in the bay is a conservation success story worth sharing with the world.
Ocean plastic pollution is a problem–a big problem– for the health of the ocean and ocean wildlife. In California, we’re making progress by tackling it on several fronts.
Right now, the Legislature isclose to passing the nation’s strongest law to eliminate the use of non-biodegradable microbeads in consumer products. In recent years, cities and counties throughout California have banned single-use plastic bags. And in 2014, California enacted astatewide ban on disposable plastic shopping bags, authored by three of the Aquarium’s 2015 Ocean Champion Award winners– Secretary of State (and former state senator) Alex Padilla, State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and State Senator Ricardo Lara.
That law established California as a leader in the fight against the growingtide of ocean plastic pollution. It was supposed to take effect on July 1– untilout-of-state plastic bag companies spent millions of dollars to force theissue onto the November 2016 ballot. Without the law, each year as many as 13 billion plastic bags will be sold in California that would otherwise not be sold. Every bag could potentially make its way to the ocean.
Implementation ofa statewide ban on single-use bags has been delayed, but not derailed. Victory over the effort to repeal this law is a top Aquarium priority, as taking steps backward is unacceptable. We’re asking you join us and Say Yes on the referendum to keep this law: Say Yes to a plastic-free ocean. Say Yes to reusable shopping bags. Say Yes to California’s leadership on this critical issue.
When you brush your teeth or wash your face, it’s likely you’re also washing thousands of microbeads—plastic spheres 5 millimeters or smaller—down the drain. Those microbeads are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants, so they end up in the ocean. Microbeads are so ubiquitous that estimates suggest billions of them wash down the drain every day.
Few people are aware of the volume of plastic scrubbers in their personal care products, or what effects they’re having on ocean health. While some products like facial scrubs advertise the presence of microbeads by giving them contrasting colors, others don’t make them so obvious. Unless the beads are big enough to feel, one way consumers can check if their products are plastic-free is by scrutinizing the ingredients list for terms like “polyethylene” and “polypropylene.”
Now there’s a push to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products. Several states have already passed bills to ban or significantly limit their use. Many other states, including California, are currently taking up such bills. California Assembly Bill 888 has passed the state Assembly and is now being considered by state Senate committees. If enacted, it will arguably be the strongest law passed to date against microbead pollution in the United States. Under its provisions, the bill would ban the sale of any non-prescription rinse-off product containing microbeads as of January 1, 2020. The Aquarium has joined the effort to advance this bill.