Let’s talk about seawater desalination

Here at Monterey Bay Aquarium, we know a little about seawater desalination. When we added our Open Sea wing in the late 1990s, we built a small-scale desal plant to produce the water that flushes the Aquarium’s toilets.

Tiny as it is, our desal plant drew attention as one of the first in California. “We had engineers from all over the state looking at it,” says Wayne Sperduto, the Aquarium’s facility systems supervisor.

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An aerial view of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

Our onsite desal plant is capable of producing about 22 gallons of fresh water per minute. Compare that to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which last December began delivering fresh water to San Diego County – to the tune of 35,000 gallons per minute.

California’s ongoing drought is driving interest in desalination across the state, and we’re a part of the conversation. In January, Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, through the Center for Ocean Solutions and Water in the West, collaborated with Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Nature Conservancy to convene a wide range of experts to discuss the potential impacts of ocean desalination on coastal and marine ecosystems.

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Seawater sleuthing with eDNA

Every living thing is constantly shedding fragments of itself into the environment. Police detectives take advantage of this at a crime scene when they search for hair, skin or saliva—all of which contain DNA, a full genome of information unique to their owner.

Fishes, sharks and other marine organisms shed their DNA, too. In every cup of seawater, there are sloughed-off cells and waste from the animals that have swum, drifted or floated there.

This DNA from the environment is called eDNA. Over the past few years, scientists at the Center for Ocean Solutions (COS)— a partnership among the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Stanford University—have investigated how scientists, conservationists and resource managers can use eDNA to gain critical information about marine ecosystems, more quickly and more cheaply than ever before.

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California marine life feeling the heat of climate change

Monterey Bay is home to an astonishing array of marine life, from kelp forests to sea otters to migrating whales. The secret to its productivity: the California Current.

A humpback whale breaches off the Big Sur coast. Photo © Jim Capwell.

The California Current flows southward along the West Coast of North America delivering cool, nutrient-rich water from British Columbia to Baja California. Prevailing northwesterly  winds drive the current and stimulate upwelling, a process by which cold water rises from the depths to support biodiversity off the coast.

Monterey Bay’s rich ecosystem naturally varies in response to physical changes in the environment. But human-caused carbon dioxide emissions are driving long-term shifts that could impact fisheries and vulnerable marine species in ways we’ve never seen before.

Weird is the new normal

Life in the California Current naturally fluctuates from year to year, partially due to temperature changes, said John C. Field, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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Purple-striped jellies and other gelatinous creatures sometimes dominate the California Current. The reasons are still a mystery.

In cold-water years, he says, upwelling brings nutrient-rich deep waters to the surface, typically supporting an abundance of rockfish, krill and market squid. Warm-water years, when less upwelling occurs, bring more sub-tropical species, such as pelagic red crab. Some years, jellies and other gelatinous creatures dominate the current, for reasons scientists don’t yet understand.

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Marine protected areas: building climate change resilience

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations are gathering in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the many ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today, we shine a spotlight on one of the ocean’s most powerful tools to weather the impacts of climate change.


The climate talks in Paris aren’t just about trying to prevent future catastrophe. They’re also about preparing for, and mitigating, the changes already underway.

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Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary is an MPA off the California Coast. Greg McCall/ONMS

The goal at COP21 is to reach an international accord that will substantially cut the world’s carbon emissions, limiting global average temperatures to a 2-degree Celsius rise. But even if we achieve this best-case scenario, climate change will still have serious impacts on the ocean, including higher sea levels, warmer waters, shifting species distributions and ocean acidification.

Continue reading Marine protected areas: building climate change resilience

COP21: A chance for a sea change

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations are gathering in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. In light of COP21, Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the serious ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today, as the conference begins, the Center for Ocean Solutions highlights the integral links between climate change and our global ocean.


The ocean is the heart of our Earth’s climate system, pumping heat and moisture around the planet. It’s also an incredible climate change buffer. As we burn more and more fossil fuels, the ocean absorbs much of that extra heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But that service comes at a cost. Sea levels are rising. Seawater is warming. And the ocean is almost 30 percent more acidic than it was 100 years ago. These changes are affecting much of the marine life people depend on: The ocean produces about one-sixth of the animal protein we eat and more than half the oxygen we breathe.

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Leading the way on ocean acidification

This summer, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary hosted Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlighted the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay, and celebrated the recovery of the bay as an ocean conservation success story of global significance. Many conservation efforts contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet, and we’eve highlighted several in a series of guest commentaries. This comes from Lindley Measea senior research analyst , and Kristen Weiss, an early career fellow – both at the Center for Ocean Solutions. The Center is a collaboration among the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, the Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the largest in the United States. It complements a statewide network of marine protected areas (MPAs) that has set the bar for the United States.

MPAs often aim to protect ocean habitats from local pressures, from fishing to offshore oil drilling. Research now suggests that they’re also an ideal way to address some local impacts of climate change. While resource managers might not be able to directly manage fossil fuel emissions, they can implement local mitigation and adaptation measures that help protect coastal ecosystems from impacts such as hypoxia (oxygen-deficient water) and ocean acidification.

Continue reading Leading the way on ocean acidification

Kristen Weiss: Sea otters, kelp and ocean tipping points

Through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary are hosting 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. This is from Kristen Weiss, an early career science fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions. The Center is a collaboration among the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, the Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

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Kristen Weiss

The story of sea otter loss and recovery has had dramatic consequences for the health of Monterey Bay’s kelp forests. Less than 100 years ago, sea otters were thought to be extinct along the California coast as the result of rampant overhunting by fur traders. While otter hunting was officially banned in 1911, there seemed little hope of recovery at the time.

Then, in 1938, a small population of otters was discovered off the Big Sur coast just south of Monterey. Since then, sea otters have made a modest comeback (about 3,000 individuals) thanks to their protected status.

A remnant colony of sea otters was rediscovered off the Big Sur coast in the 1930s. Photo © William L. Morgan/California Views Photo Archives
A remnant colony of sea otters was rediscovered off the Big Sur coast in the 1930s. Photo © William L. Morgan/California Views Photo Archives

They’re now a common sight in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary where they have helped catalyze the regrowth of kelp habitat. As Dr. Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station writes in his book The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, once otters recolonized Monterey Bay “they fed happily on sea urchins, and they left luxuriant kelp forest growing in their wake.”

Kelp Forests reach a tipping point

In nature, one plus one does not always equal two. Sometimes, small changes in human pressures or environmental conditions can result in disproportionately large responses in the ecosystem – potentially even collapse. Ecosystems can respond to stressors in nonlinear ways, displaying ecological thresholds (also known as “tipping points”) beyond which systems undergo dramatic change. The Center for Ocean Solutions is a collaborator in the Ocean Tipping Points project that aims to understand and predict where ecological thresholds might exist in marine habitats such as kelp forests.

By eating sea urchins and other grazing animals, sea otters allow kelp forests to thrive. Photo by Neil Fisher

As was the case in Monterey Bay, the loss of sea otters typically marks an abrupt tipping point for kelp forest habitat. As a keystone species, otters maintain kelp habitat by eating sea urchins, the main consumers of kelp. In the absence of otters, urchin populations can grow unchecked, their out-of-control grazing undermining kelp forests and creating “urchin barrens” devoid of the shelter and biodiversity that kelp ecosystems typically offer. Where kelp once harbored diverse assemblages of juvenile and adult fishes, invertebrates like urchins and shellfish now dominate a simplified habitat.

When such tipping points occur, the distribution of ecosystem benefits to humans can shift considerably. For example, kelp habitats support important commercial fish species and attract diving and snorkeling tourism. However, in the absence of otters, urchin fishermen often gain substantial benefits and may be opposed to management interventions aimed at otter reestablishment. These types of trade-offs highlight the difficulty of balancing social and ecological values in marine management.

 To help managers address social and ecological complexity, Ocean Tipping Points project collaborators have outlined seven principles for managing ecosystems that are prone to tipping points (see infographic below), so that managers can better predict and prevent unwanted tipping points.

Hope for sea otters in Monterey Bay

In Monterey Bay, marine managers, scientists, and conservationists are working to promote sea otter recovery through research and active management. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program has been active for over 30 years, conducting important research on sea otters as well as caring for injured or stranded otters. To maintain healthy populations of otters, we need healthy marine environments.

The seven principles of managing for tipping points, applied to the kelp forest ecosystem. (Graphic by Jackie Mandoski and Courtney Scarborough)
The seven principles of managing for tipping points, applied to the kelp forest ecosystem. (Graphic by Jackie Mandoski and Courtney Scarborough)

At the Center for Ocean Solutions, researchers are working on projects such as the Kelp Forest Array and Environmental DNA to collect important information about water quality and species biodiversity in kelp forest habitat. These projects are helping identify what human-caused and natural threats may be impacting the bay so that we can better protect sea otter habitat into the future.

The expansion of sea otters along the Monterey coastline “left behind a string of changed shorelines and restored bay,” writes Palumbi. “Where there was once subtidal rock bristling with urchin spines, there now bloomed kelp forest with sea urchins and abalone restricted to crevices in the rock. Where kelp bloomed, there now thrived a bustling community of fish and invertebrates.”

While sea otters still have a long way to go to reach numbers comparable to historical population sizes, their initial recovery along California’s central coast  and the related comeback of healthy kelp forest habitat here in Monterey Bay – offers hope for other species and regions affected by significant human activity.

Learn how the Center for Ocean Solutions is tackling major challenges to ocean health.

Striking a balance: deep sea mining and ecosystem protection

Thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface lies a hidden world of undiscovered species, ancient animals and unique seabed habitats—as well as a vast untapped store of natural resources including valuable metals and rare-earth minerals. There’s growing demand globally to tap these minerals, which are key components in everything from cars to computers, skyscrapers and smartphones. And there are proposals around the world to begin mining the seafloor: in the Indian Ocean, off Papua New Guinea, and in the Red Sea.

This Relicanthus sp. -- a new species from a new order of Cnidaria -- lives on sponge stalks attached to mineral nodules more than 12,000 feet below the surface. Credit: Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project.
This Relicanthus sp. — a new species from a new order of Cnidaria — lives on sponge stalks attached to mineral nodules more than 12,000 feet below the surface. Credit: Craig Smith and Diva Amon, ABYSSLINE Project.

Deep sea mining will have impacts on ecosystems that are lightly mapped and poorly understood. So, researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey and co-authors from leading institutions around the world propose a strategy for balancing commercial extraction of deep-sea resources with protection of diverse seabed habitats. Their approach, published this week in the journal Science, is intended to inform upcoming discussions by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that will lay the groundwork for future deep-sea environmental protection and mining regulations.

A 26-year old test mining track created on the seafloor  in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ)  illustrates the extremely slow recovery of abyssal ecosystems from physical disturbance. Credit: Ifremer, Nodinaut cruise (2004)
A 26-year old test mining track created on the seafloor in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone (CCZ) illustrates the extremely slow recovery of abyssal ecosystems from physical disturbance. Credit: Ifremer, Nodinaut cruise (2004)

“Our purpose is to point out that the ISA has an important opportunity to create networks of no-mining marine protected areas (MPAs) as part of the regulatory framework they are considering at their July meeting,” says lead author Lisa Wedding, an early career science fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions.  “The establishment of regional MPA networks in the deep sea could potentially benefit both mining and biodiversity interests by providing more economic certainty and ecosystem protection.”

Adds co-author Sarah Reiter, an ocean policy research analyst at the Monterey Bay Aquarium: “We’re advancing an approach that’s grounded in the best available science, consistent with international law, and feasible given political will.”

The Center for Ocean Solutions is a collaboration among Stanford University, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). It works to solve the major problems facing the ocean and prepares leaders to take on these challenges.

Take an in-depth look at the research and the issues.