Conservation & Science

Playing your part through citizen science

On Earth Day,  Monterey Bay Aquarium staff and volunteers joined in March for Science events along with tens of thousands of people in more than 600 cities around the world. With representatives at marches in seven cities across the U.S. and Europe, the Aquarium stood up for one of our founding principles: that evidence-based science should drive conservation action.

From recording and sharing wildlife observations to reporting stranded sea otters, there are many ways to contribute as a citizen scientist.

It’s clear that the March for Science isn’t just about scientists, and it’s more than a one-day phenomenon. People of all ages and backgrounds participated, because you don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate the benefits science offers—or to contribute to the scientific process.

Much of the science taking place at the Aquarium, from saving sea otters to tracking white sharks, relies on dedicated citizens quite literally taking science into their own hands. Thanks to our increasingly connected society, opportunities abound for everyone from middle school students to retired teachers to participate in citizen science at the Aquarium—and beyond. Here are a few of the many ways you can become a citizen scientist. Read more…

Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Bluefin karaoke

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna—particularly Pacific bluefin, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this summer we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This is the fourth and final dispatch in his series.


Last night got a little wild.  We haven’t seen a bluefin tuna in nine days, and we’re all starting to go a little stir-crazy. That night over dinner, we have beverages. Fine Japanese beverages. And after dinner? More beverages. Lo and behold, the restaurant owner pulled out the karaoke machine.

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Student Kota Sebe lays down a high-energy karaoke performance.

I was first to the microphone with a reliable jam, “Under Pressure” by the late David Bowie and Queen. I didn’t realize the karaoke machines here have a complex vocal analysis system that scores your performance. Let’s just say I didn’t go platinum. (Definitely a problem with that karaoke software.)

It was Dr. Ko Fujioka who put on the winning performance of the night: a classic Japanese pop song from the ’80s. Fujioka-san rocked it, getting a high score of 91.7 points, the third-highest in the restaurant’s history.  People were dancing and cheering—karaoke is a big deal here.

Then researcher Mitsuake Sato got up and sang a powerful love ballad, replacing the female subject’s name with maguro (Japanese for “bluefin”). In tears from laughing, we went to bed, glad to have vented our Bluefin Blues in some way.

Read more…

Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Hamachi days

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna – particularly Pacific bluefin, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this summer we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This is the third dispatch in his series; you can read the second here.


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Even when the nets come up tunaless, Sado Island offers some lovely sights.

It’s Day 9 of our bluefin tuna tagging expedition in the Sea of Japan. I’m sorry to report that after an exciting first day, we haven’t seen a single tuna in over a week.

We head out at 4 a.m. every day, excited at the prospect of a trap full of big bluefin ready to be fitted with satellite tracking tags. But when our crew hauls the net, what do we find? Lots and lots of yellowtail, or hamachi.

That’s fishing, I guess. Last fall I spent three weeks in chilly Nova Scotia and only tagged two tuna. (Weeks of bad weather kept us stuck in a cabin, watching B-rated movies.) Another year, we were hoping to tag bluefin off of Mexico, but the fishing was so slow we watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in a day.

I’m really hoping this isn’t going to be another one of those trips.

Read more…

Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Tuna tagging 101

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna – particularly Pacific bluefin, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this summer we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This the second dispatch in his series; you can read the first here.


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A Pacific bluefin tuna swims in the Sea of Japan.

Before we go further into our bluefin tagging expedition in Japan, I want to share a bit of background on this fascinating and politically-charged fish we study: Thunnus orientalis, the Pacific bluefin tuna.

You may have read that bluefin are in decline due to overfishing. The challenge is to sort the headlines from the science. Scientists don’t always have perfect answers, but they do use the best data available to make educated guesses.

Read more…

Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Tagging takes teamwork

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna populations – particularly Pacific bluefin tuna, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin tuna in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this month we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This the first dispatch in his series.


Tags are laid out on a tatami mat, prepped and ready for use when the tagging team heads out to sea.
Tags are laid out on a tatami mat, prepped and ready for use when the tagging team heads out to sea.

The alarm buzzes beside my head and, opening my eyes, I have no idea where I am.

I’m lying on the floor of a room covered wall-to-wall in woven straw mats, with rice paper windows and a table rising a foot off the ground. Right. Japan. Sado Island in the Sea of Japan, where I’m sleeping on a traditional tatami mat. Yesterday’s cannery whistle is blowing back home at the Monterey Bay Aquarium at noon, but my 4 a.m. alarm tells me it’s time to get up and find some Pacific bluefin tuna.

One year ago, I sat in a third-floor office at the aquarium with my colleague Chuck Farwell and Dr. Ko Fujioka from Japan’s National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries as we went through the steps necessary to deploy a satellite tag on a bluefin tuna. We discussed the tag attachment system that anchors the small electronic device to the animal for up to a year at a time, as well as the process for programming the tag’s onboard computer to record the whereabouts and behaviors of these wide-ranging fish. Read more…

Tirelessly tracking bluefin tunas

Bluefin tunas are among the ocean’s most fabulous fish. Sleek and strong, they cross oceans in mere weeks, warm their bodies by capturing their metabolic heat,  and live for decades. They’re also prized commodities, especially as sushi in restaurants around the world. Given bluefin’s high cultural and economic value, overfishing has driven some populations of these prized ocean predators into steep decline.

How to rebuild bluefin populations remains a critical question — one science can help us answer.

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Tuna swim in a flume, also known as a “tuna treadmill,” at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

Researchers and fisheries managers around the world are working to protect and recover bluefin tuna populations. But conservation efforts must be informed by basic science: When do bluefin mature? Where do they travel in the ocean? When do they stop to eat?

From Jan. 18-20, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University will convene the world’s top bluefin researchers, policy makers and stakeholders to share cutting-edge data and new approaches to conserving these iconic species. Together, they’ll look to identify areas for international collaboration.

The Tuna Research and Conservation Center, a partnership between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University.
The Tuna Research and Conservation Center is a partnership between Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University.

The upcoming meeting is the brainchild of Stanford University professor Barbara Block, who’s devoted her research career to the hows and whys of bluefin tunas. It also reflects three decades of collaboration between Barbara and Chuck Farwell, the Aquarium’s Tuna Research and Conservation Manager.

In 1993, Barbara was recruited to Stanford from the University of Chicago. During the visit, she and Chuck hatched a plan to join forces and build a tuna facility at Stanford: the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC). They hoped to jointly accomplish two missions: to help the Aquarium exhibit tunas, and to start a research facility specializing in the biology of these Olympic-caliber athletes.

The science of “fish and chips”

For more than 20 years, the TRCC team has focused on big-picture tuna challenges. First up was learning how to keep yellowfin and bluefin tunas in captivity — research that eventually enabled the Aquarium to display the sleek predators in the Open Sea exhibit.

Tuna in a TRCC tank. Photo ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, by Tyson V. Rininger
Tuna in a TRCC tank.

In 1996, the TRCC team began asking where tunas go in the wild. Barbara had worked with the father of tuna biology, Dr. Frank Carey (to whom the TRCC lab is dedicated), to track tunas with telemetry. Using tracking technology, the team  has explored questions of where tunas travel in the ocean and how their bodies handle the extreme conditions they face on their migrations — between continents, from subtropical to temperate waters, and to depths of more than 6,000 feet. Their findings are helping inform conservation practices that could help bluefin tuna populations recover in years to come.

The TRCC team has mapped the migrations of hundreds of Pacific bluefin tuna.
The TRCC team has mapped the migrations of hundreds of Pacific bluefin tuna.

The TRCC team’s research has been especially challenging and transformative for one reason: It’s difficult to understand where animals go, and what they do, when they’re underwater and far from shore.

“Most of us from [a] ship — even I — look out at the ocean and see a homogeneous sea,” Barbara explained during a 2010 TED talk. “We don’t know where the structure is. We can’t tell where the watering holes are, like we can on an African plain.”

Using the “fish and chips” strategy, TRCC scientists have uncovered critical information about where tunas travel. In the early 2000s, they documented tunas making transoceanic journeys. Some of the bluefin born in Japan travel to the California coast, and some born in the Gulf of Mexico travel to the European coast. The discovery of these fishes’ highly migratory behavior has greatly improved our understanding of all three bluefin species, and informs international negotiations on conserving bluefin tuna populations.

Warm-blooded but cold-hearted

Other studies have uncovered where bluefin tunas eat and where they spawn — two crucial bits of information when it comes to protecting them and essential tuna habitats. A recent paper in the journal Science Advances identified key bluefin tuna feeding locations in the Pacific, and determined they prefer searching for food in specific conditions.

Chuck Farwell at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center. Photo ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, by Tyson V. Rininger
Chuck Farwell checks in on fish at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

“They tend to select a certain temperature range to live in,” Chuck explains. “They also have the ability to dive and explore in very warm or very cold water, for short periods of time.”

In collaboration with tuna researchers in Japan, Chuck and the TRCC have been working in the Sea of Japan to find out where Pacific bluefin spawn, and what habitat the young fish utilize as they develop. Their work should be published later this year.

The TRCC team is making important discoveries about bluefin physiology, too. Unlike most fishes, tuna are warm-blooded, or “endothermic,” meaning they can heat their bodies above the temperature of the surrounding ocean. But not every body part gets warmed equally. Bluefin maintain heat in their eyes, brain, swimming muscles and guts. But their hearts are cold, experiencing temperature drops of tens of degrees Celsius during deep dives. How do tuna manage to keep their hearts pumping at temperatures that would stop a human heart?

Barbara Block and other TRCC researchers have perfected the art of tagging giant bluefin tuna at sea.
Barbara Block and other TRCC researchers have perfected the art of tagging giant bluefin tuna at sea.

In 2015, Barbara and colleagues published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B that answered this question. They found that adrenaline was the secret. Cold temperatures trigger an adrenaline rush, which helps maintain the level of calcium in tuna hearts. Without calcium, the heart would not be able to beat normally at extremely cold temperatures.

In May, Barbara will receive the 2016 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Science. The award is just one of several she has earned over the past two decades — including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” — but her tireless work is far from finished. There are still hundreds of questions to be answered, more bluefin to track, and populations to preserve.

A chance to inspire change

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Illustration of an Atlantic bluefin tuna – one of three bluefin tuna species, along with southern and Pacific.

By tagging bluefin tuna in the wild and learning more about their physiology in captivity, the TRCC team is producing data crucial to sustainable management. Barbara hopes that by bringing together global scientists, fishers, managers and policymakers, we can ensure that collaboration increases, transfer of knowledge improves, and the steep decline of bluefin populations in the Pacific and the western Atlantic reverses in her lifetime.

Chuck has high hopes the Bluefin Futures Symposium will bring the science to bear on management solutions. “Everyone at the Aquarium that’s involved in this has high expectations there will be positive outcomes,” he says.

Learn more about the Bluefin Futures Symposium at www.bluefinfutures2016.org.

— Diana LaScala-Gruenewald

Featured photo: Dr. Barbara Block was honored in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2012. Photo by Rolex.

Chuck Farwell: Tuna Scientist, Mentor, Fish Whisperer

No two days are the same in the life of Chuck Farwell, manager of the Aquarium’s Tuna Research and Conservation Program. Some days he’s helping the husbandry team maintain our stock of Pacific bluefin tuna. Other days he’s on a boat at sea, surgically implanting electronic tracking tags into the bellies of fish. And some days he’s in Japan, advocating for the conservation and preservation of the Pacific bluefin tuna.

Chuck Farwell at the TRCC
Chuck Farwell at the TRCC

Chuck has been working with tuna since the 1960s, when he first surveyed albacore tuna ranges for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He joined the Aquarium before it opened in 1984, with a long-term vision of developing husbandry techniques to allow us to keep and maintain tuna. At the time, no aquarium outside Japan had ever kept tuna on permanent exhibit. In 1996, Monterey became the first, with displays of yellowfin and bluefin tuna.

Now, Chuck focuses on Pacific bluefin tuna, large predators that can migrate across ocean basins in a matter of weeks. They’re beautiful, lightning-fast and as majestic as they are delicious. The species is prized among seafood enthusiasts – primarily for the high-end sushi trade.

Dramatic population collapse Read more…

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