Conservation & Science

Using science to save ocean wildlife

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a science-driven organization, and rigorous science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. Much of our research centers on marine life that visitors can also see in our exhibits – from sea otters to sharks and tunas, even our giant kelp forest. Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the past 30-plus years that is contributing to conservation of key ocean species and ecosystems.

A sea otter works to crack a mussel shell open on a rock off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Photo by Jessica Fujii

Sea otters crack open tool-use secrets

Revolutionary female scientist Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimps use tools and live within complex social systems. Our team of female researchers are walking in Jane’s footsteps with their recent studies on use of tools by another mammal: the sea otter. When observing sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula, sometimes we can hear a “crack, crack, crack!” above the roar of the tide. That sound comes from sea otters using rocks and other tools to open prey items, such as crabs or bivalves, as they float on their backs. Sea otters are avid tool users, but until recently not much was known about how sea otters choose their tools, what aspects of their environments influence tool use, or whether they teach tool use to other otters. The Aquarium’s decades of research into sea otter behavior provided years of observations of sea otter foraging and tool-use behavior, including sea otter pups pounding empty fists against their chests. Could such activity be instinctual? Research Biologist Jessica Fujii has devoted much of her young career to studying the frequency and types of tools used and whether tool use can be coded in sea otter genes. Jessica is looking ahead to see how sea otters learn, teach, and eventually master tool use in the wild.

A sea otter rests in an eelgrass bed in Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Sea otters contribute to the recovery of eelgrass and ecosystem health in this vital wetland on Monterey Bay. Photo by Ron Eby.

Sea otter surrogacy helps restore Elkhorn Slough

With 15 years of experience rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing surrogate-reared sea otters into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Moss Landing, California, the sea otter research team at the Aquarium began to wonder how and if their work was affecting the otter population there. Does releasing a few animals into the slough each year really make any difference? After crunching some serious numbers from the surrogacy program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) annual sea otter census, the researchers discovered that it did. Nearly 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in Elkhorn Slough today are there as a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program. While we’d known that sea otters served as ecosystem engineers for the giant kelp forests in Monterey Bay, we have now documented that sea otters in Elkhorn Slough are restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary. This gives us further insights into how sea otters may contribute to coastal ecosystem resilience. Read more…

Restoring eelgrass for climate resilience

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State Senator Bill Monning, left, recipient of the 2016 California Ocean Champion Award, speaks at the Ocean Day reception hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

California is forging the path forward on climate leadership. This year, state leaders have made significant progress on policies to reduce our emissions of heat-trapping gases and mitigate the impact of changes already in motion.

Today’s post comes from California Senator Bill Monning, the State Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Monning is the author of SB 1363, an important piece of climate legislation which the Monterey Bay Aquarium supported, and which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law this year. In today’s guest post, Sen. Monning shares his thoughts on how restoring California’s eelgrass habitat can improve the resilience of our coast in the face of climate change.


This past August, the California Legislature adjourned the 2015-2-16 Legislative Session, and once again we passed several bills that tackle the dire issue of climate change.

We extended the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets through 2030, committed state resources to clean up abandoned fishing and crabbing gear that entangles whales off the California coast, and passed Senate Bill (SB) 1363, which I authored, to restore eelgrass habitat and mitigate the impact of carbon dioxide on our atmosphere and ocean.

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Tiny animals called pteropods are among the marine creatures at risk in an acidifying ocean.

SB 1363 requires the Ocean Protection Council (OPC), in coordination with the State Coastal Conservancy, to establish and administer the Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Reduction Program. This measure was introduced in response to the April 2016 report by the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel and the Ocean Science Trust, in collaboration with the OPC.

The panel’s science-based report tells us that ocean acidification is a global issue, and that California’s coast will experience some of the most severe and earliest changes in ocean carbon chemistry. However, the report also tells us that we can take steps to support ocean and coastal resilience in the face of these changes. One recommendation to help reverse the impacts of ocean acidification is the reestablishment of seagrasses, including eelgrass, along California’s coast.

Read more…

Our surrogate-raised sea otters are helping restore a wetland

Otter 501 meanders through the tidal creeks near Yampah Island in Elkhorn Slough with a dozing pup on her chest. She massages the pup’s rump and blows air into its fur as she makes her way toward a main channel to feed.

To an observer, 501 might look like any other sea otter going about her business. But she’s thriving in the wild today because of a rather remarkable program at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

According to surprising new research, the same can be said of the majority of Elkhorn Slough’s otters.

Read more…

Sea otters and eelgrass, in one infographic

Long-term observations by our sea otter scientists confirm that sea otters are transforming the Elkhorn Slough estuary, in positive ways, by devouring predators that keep eelgrass beds from thriving. We’ve told the story before, in words and pictures. For Sea Otter Awareness Week, we’ve created a simple infographic to document the relationships. You can read more on the aquarium’s general interest Tumblr blog.  Otter eelgrass infographic

1965: The future that might have been

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. Ken Peterson, the Aquarium’s communications director, describes an epic environmental battle that took place 50 years ago and dramatically shaped the future of the Monterey Bay region.

Ken Peterson
Ken Peterson

It’s easy to take the environmental health of Monterey County for granted. It’s all around us, from Point Lobos State Reserve and the Pacific Grove shoreline, to the whales, sea otters and seabirds in the bay.

The region is defined by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Aquarium, nearly two dozen respected marine research institutions, healthy commercial fisheries and a $5 billion agricultural industry that includes a growing organic sector.

Big Blue Live holds up Monterey Bay as a global ocean conservation success story.

Valero refinery in Benicia, once proposed for Moro Cojo Slough in Moss Landing
Valero refinery in Benicia, a project once proposed for Moro Cojo Slough in Moss Landing.

Fifty years ago, we almost lost it – all of it. It’s a might-have-been scenario that’s hard to fathom from the perspective of 2015. And it’s a reminder that – time and again – local residents have banded together and fought to preserve one of Earth’s great environmental treasures.

In 1965, in the most divisive and electrifying battle to face Monterey County in modern times, we came within a whisker of becoming home to a 50,000-barrel-a-day oil refinery, to be built on the wetlands of Moro Cojo Slough in Moss Landing next to a power plant and a factory that produced bricks for industrial blast furnaces.

An ’emerging industrial corridor’

The $50 million Humble Oil refinery was seen as a linchpin for an “emerging Moss Landing-Salinas industrial corridor” that would occupy 3,800 acres of Salinas Valley farmland – stretching south to the recently opened Firestone tire plant in Salinas. PG&E waited in the wings with plans to build a nuclear power plant in Moss Landing.

The battle over Humble Oil split the county over the issue of environmental protection versus economic development. The Salinas Valley wanted to add to the county’s tax base and diversify the economy. Monterey Peninsula residents lobbied fiercely to keep the air clean and the bay free of oil tankers.

The proposed 50,000-barrel-a-day refinery would have been fueled by fleets of tankers in Monterey Bay.
The 50,000-barrel-a-day refinery would have been fueled by fleets of tankers in Monterey Bay.

Newspapers editorialized passionately on opposite sides of the issue. More than 23,000 county residents – nearly 10 percent of the population – wrote letters and signed petitions, for and against the project.

It was such a different world, 1965: Five years before the first Earth Day, with the environmental movement in its infancy. There was no California Coastal Commission, no federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts, no regional air pollution control district – and no environmental impact reports.

Sea otters had barely returned to Monterey Bay, and commercial whaling was still legal. The idea of a marine sanctuary was decades in the future; Elkhorn Slough had no protected status.

The county’s economy was different, too. Cannery Row was lined with derelict fish-packing plants, not hotels and a world-class aquarium. Neither agriculture nor tourism were the multi-billion dollar economic engines they are today.

Adding a $50 million project to the tax rolls was very tempting – especially when you consider that tax revenue from PG&E’s Moss Landing power plant covered a quarter of the costs of building a dam vital to the future of farming in the Salinas Valley.

Pitched public battle

Humble Oil, a subsidiary of Standard Oil, announced its plans for the refinery just after Valentine’s Day and began an intensive lobbying campaign for support. In late July, the Monterey County Planning Commission turned the project down on a 5-4 vote. (The commissioner who cast the deciding “no” vote had eight customers cancel their accounts at his Salinas hardware store.)

On September 3 – the Friday before Labor Day – the Board of Supervisors reversed the Commission and backed the project on a 3-2 vote following a marathon 13 ½-hour public hearing that ended at 3 a.m.

A humpback whale breaches off Moss Landing, with power plant in background. Photo ©Shane Keena
A humpback whale breaches off Moss Landing, with power plant in background. Photo ©Shane Keena

Opponents refused to surrender. A referendum petition to overturn the decision attracted 15,000 signatures in a matter of weeks. A citizens committee prepared to take the fight to Standard Oil shareholders.

Ultimately, Humble Oil backed away. It opted in May 1966 to develop a 100,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Benicia, on San Francisco Bay, where the city embraced the project with open arms. (The refinery, now owned by Valero, has been fined repeatedly for violating state and federal air quality laws. It’s also considered a good community citizen, and an anchor of Benicia’s economic revival.)

The company maintained that public opposition had nothing to do with the decision.

But was a defining moment for the future of the Monterey Bay region, one that renowned photographer and Carmel resident Ansel Adams alluded to in a speech in opposition to the project.

Sandhill crane in Moro Cojo Slough. Photo © Blake Matheson
Sandhill crane in Moro Cojo Slough. Photo © Blake Matheson

“It is not just the Humble Oil refinery we’re fighting at Moss Landing,” he said. “It is the whole industrial complex which will inevitably follow and change the whole complexion of (the region).”

The Monterey Peninsula Herald – which fought tirelessly against the refinery had this to say:

“The battle is won….We rejoice….We have protected a clean air-shed, and we can keep it for our grandchildren; we can have a positively clean shoreline, and clean streams, and we can keep them for our great-grandchildren. That’s what men are for: to look to the future and to preserve the country.”

Today, Moro Cojo is a state marine reserve, the “emerging industrial corridor” has faded from memory – and Big Blue Live is the face of Monterey Bay.

Learn what the Aquarium is doing to assure a future with healthy oceans.

Sea otter insights: monitoring apex predators in Elkhorn Slough

Michelle Staedler stands atop a hill above Elkhorn Slough. It’s low tide – low enough to see the green eelgrass just under the surface of the water. Michelle peers through a spotting scope with a directional radio antenna attached. Static hums on the radio until it’s broken by a quiet blip…blip…blip coming from a radio tag inside the abdomen of a sea otter. Michelle records the time and notes that the otter she’s been watching for the last fifteen minutes, 501, has come up with a clam that she shares with her pup, floating by her side.

Michelle Staedler with the  Sea Otter Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium, monitors the behavior of sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. Photo by Cynthia McKelvey
Michelle Staedler with the Sea Otter Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium, monitors the behavior of sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. Photo by Cynthia McKelvey

Michelle is recording foraging data on Otter 501, perhaps the most famous sea otter in the  history of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s otter surrogacy program. Rescued as a pup by the Aquarium and raised in captivity, she was successfully released in 2011 into Elkhorn Slough, a major estuary system in Moss Landing that feeds into Monterey Bay. Otter 501 has gone on to raise several pups of her own in the slough, where many of her species have come to flourish.

Michelle and her collaborators at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve have been counting otters in the slough since September 2013 as part of a population monitoring project. She has conducted several research projects on sea otter behavior since she began working with the Aquarium nearly 30 years ago. Her work focuses on sea otter mothers, their pups and how they feed. Foraging data gathered in the slough has proven particularly useful to ecological research.

Crabs are a favorite prey item for sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. By eating the crabs, otters help restore the health of the slough ecosystem. (Photo by Ron Eby)
Crabs are a favorite prey item for sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. By eating the crabs, otters help restore the health of the slough ecosystem. (Photo by Ron Eby)

Sea otters are a keystone species – central to the overall health of ecosystems of which they’re a part. Like other top ocean predators, their presence helps maintain a diverse community of animals and plants. The web can unravel if otter numbers dwindle. That’s exactly what happened when they were hunted to near-extinction by fur traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In kelp forests, otters eat sea urchins and other grazing animals, keeping them from devouring the kelp. This allows the productive ecosystem to thrive.

Using several data sets, including Michelle’s extensive foraging data, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz discovered that otters play an equally important role in the slough.

The sea slug Phyllaplysia taylori, also known as the "eelgrass sea hare," feeds on algae growing on the leaves of eelgrass. (Photo by Brent Hughes)
The sea slug Phyllaplysia taylori, also known as the “eelgrass sea hare,” feeds on algae growing on the leaves of eelgrass. (Photo by Brent Hughes)

As the story goes, before the otter population bounced back in the mid-1980s, eelgrass beds in the slough were being smothered by algae that grew unchecked on the leaves, absorbing the sunlight eelgrass needed for photosynthesis. In a healthy ecosystem, snails, slugs and other invertebrates would eat the film of algae, cleaning the grass and allowing it to get the sunlight it needs. But those grazers were being devoured by crabs, which had few natural predators in the slough – that is until sea otters turned up and began gobbling up the crabs.

Brent Hughes, who led the UC Santa Cruz research team, said he couldn’t have cinched his conclusion without the help of Michelle’s data.

“In the slough, we have unprecedented coverage of what a top predator is doing in terms of the ecology of a system, the behavior, exploitation of resources and habitat use,” Brent said. “It’s pretty much unprecedented in the marine ecology world, and that’s because of all the work that Michelle and [Brent’s collaborator] Tim Tinker have been doing.”

It’s important that she and her colleagues continue to monitor the otters, as well.

“We’re looking at the population of otters here,” Michelle explained. “How many are here, what areas of the slough they use, how they take advantage of micro habitats.”

For example, she said, a pioneer population of about 20 sea otters used to live around the jetty system in Moss Landing Harbor, at the mouth of the slough. Over time, their numbers ballooned to over 100 animals, and she’s observed them moving farther and farther up into the slough. Because of the significant restorative impact the otters can have on the ecosystem, it’s critical for researchers keep an eye on them to see what happens if their numbers continue to grow, Brent said.

– by Cynthia McKelvey

Reference:

Hughes B.B., Eby R., Van Dyke E., Tinker, M.T., Marks, C.I., Johnson, K.S., Wasson K. (2013). “Recovery of a top predator mediates negative eutrophic effects on seagrass.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38).   15313–15318, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302805110

Sea otter raft photo © Jane Vargas-Smith

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