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, 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.
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.
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.
From 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:
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
Makana stood on a cart at the front of the room and sized up the crowd. Her caretaker offered a few gestures to make her comfortable, scratching her under the chin and misting her with a spray bottle. Then the Laysan albatross partially opened her glossy dark wings, to appreciative murmurs from the audience.
It was as if she knew this was an especially important crowd to impress.
Watching Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Makana Show” in front of our Kelp Forest Exhibit were more than 100 professionals from aquariums across the U.S. and Canada, along with experts from scientific institutions, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. They were gathered in Monterey for the first-ever Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium, which was hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Over the course of three days, from December 5-7, the group discussed how aquariums can work together to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in our ocean, rivers and lakes.
You’re probably hearing a lot about plastic bags and why Californians should vote YES on Prop 67, but the issue is not just about plastic bags. It’s about plastic pollution, and it affects all of us.
For example, did you know that plastic pollution is found in the ocean at every depth, and most marine life can’t escape it? Or that young people are fighting back on this issue—and some of their ideas are wildly successful?
Monterey Bay Aquarium explores this issue in our new podcast series, “Breaking Down: The Problem with Plastic Pollution.” The six-part series covers the impacts of plastic pollution—from threats to humans and wildlife to how the issue has energized students and policymakers.
We might not think much about how our air travel affects sea snails, or how our light bulbs link with coral reefs. But on a planet where everything is connected, scientists continue to discover ways in which our carbon dioxide emissions touch life in the ocean.
On April 4, the California Ocean Science Trust released a report on one of the major impacts: ocean acidification. It occurs when the ocean absorbs some of the carbon pollution we’ve pumped into the air, triggering a chemical reaction that lowers the water’s pH.
Acidic seawater makes it tougher for shelled marine animals to survive. The fragile shells of tiny sea snails called pteropods, for example, are thinning as the pH level drops. The impacts ripple through the marine food web, affecting many of our favorite seafood species. California aquaculturists have reported that baby oysters are dying off at higher rates because their shells aren’t forming properly.
Acidification is happening across the world’s ocean. But the 20-member West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel, which authored the report, found that the North American West Coast is getting hit especially hard, and particularly soon.