Conservation & Science

The deep impact of microplastic

 

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There’s a vast ecosystem stretching far below the ocean’s surface — one where the light dims, the pressure mounts, and life takes on forms that can seem downright alien. But even there, a place that seems a world apart from human society, our plastic trash is building up.

Scientists from the Aquarium and MBARI sampled microplastic pollution in the deep waters of Monterey Bay using the ROV Ventana. Photo courtesy MBARI

In the deep sea, it’s a challenge to study where that plastic accumulates and how it affects animals. So scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and our partners at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) launched an ambitious collaboration.

The resulting study, which examined microplastic in the waters of Monterey Bay, was published June 6 in the journal Scientific Reports.

“We designed this study to answer a fundamental gap in our knowledge of marine plastic once it reaches the ocean,” says lead author Anela Choy, a former MBARI researcher and now a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

MBARI researchers collected larvaceans and their mucus feeding filters using its remotely operated vehicles. Photo courtesy MBARI.

The research team gathered data by using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), robotic submarines designed by MBARI engineers, to collect water samples at depths from 200 to 600 meters (about 650 to 2,000 feet).

They also searched for plastic in animals with important roles in the marine food web: pelagic red crabs; and tadpole-like creatures called giant larvaceans, which surround themselves with clouds of mucus that capture food — and, as the researchers discovered, plastic.

“Problems like this are extremely complicated. To try and figure out how to solve them, you need a lot of different tools,” says Aquarium Chief Scientist Kyle Van Houtan, who co-authored the paper with Anela and nine others, tapping fields from physical chemistry to marine ecology. Read more…

Connecting historical tortoiseshell trade to modern IUU fishing networks

What began as research into historical data on rare hawksbill sea turtles could help illuminate the shadowy modern world of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances. The study also revealed that a dramatically larger number of the critically endangered turtles were killed for the tortoiseshell trade, six times higher than earlier estimates.

The project started nearly a decade ago when Dr. Kyle Van Houtan — then with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, now Monterey Bay Aquarium’s director of science and senior author of the paper — was leading a sea turtle research program in Hawaii.

“Our goal was to give hawksbills the attention they deserve,” Kyle says. “Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered throughout their range, mostly due to threats from illegal harvesting.” The turtles can grow to more than three feet long and 150 pounds and are distinct for their beautiful, mottled shells. 

“They also have a long slender neck that allows them to search for food in the cavities between branches of coral in a reef. There they find sponges, algae and other invertebrates,” Kyle explains.

“They can really shape a coral reef, allowing coral colonies and the reef ecosystem to thrive,” says Dr. Emily Miller, assistant research scientist at the Aquarium and the paper’s first author. Read more…

Painting a picture of the ocean’s past

At our new Ocean Memory Lab, Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers are studying the global ocean and marine life in novel ways, to gain insights into a world before plastic and chemical pollutants were introduced to the water. Feathers, bones, teeth, bits of marine algae and other tissues from ocean plants and animals can paint a picture of conditions dating back a century or more.  They’ve already learned how the feeding habits of seabirds have changed since the late 19th century, as PBS NewsHour Weekend producer Ivette Feliciano discovered when she talked with our director of science, Dr. Kyle Van Houtan.

Here’s her report:

We’ll share the latest news and updates about the Ocean Memory Lab in future blog stories.

Learn more about our Conservation Research programs and priorities.

Flippers, not fingers: Sea turtles’ surprising feeding strategies

Imagine you’re trying to eat a snack—a tasty sustainable fish taco, let’s say. But there’s no plate, no cutlery, and you can’t use your hands. Also, gravity is muted, so the taco has a frustrating tendency to float away between bites.

Sea turtles use their flippers in a multitude of ways to help them capture prey, like this green sea turtle in the Gulf of Thailand that’s grasping a jelly before it eats. Photo ©Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com

If this sounds difficult, you’re beginning to understand the challenge of being a hungry sea turtle, stuck with awkward flippers more useful for moving around than for grasping prey.

Still, sea turtles make do with what they have. And, as it turns out, they can (and do) use their forelimbs to corral, swipe and hold food.

Their behavior is the subject of a new publication by Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers Jessica Fujii and Dr. Kyle Van Houtan. It’s something that’s been noted in passing in scientific literature, but Jessica and Kyle say it’s a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of ocean creatures. Read more…

A time machine to understand ocean health

For scientists seeking to understand how the ocean is changing, perhaps the ideal research instrument would be a time machine. Absent such technology, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been working to create the next best thing. It’s a new facility called the Ocean Memory Laboratory.

The white-tailed tropic bird was one of eight species from the North Pacific included in the Ocean Memory Lab study. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For the lab’s inaugural project, researchers have put together a dataset of the feeding habits of eight species of seabirds over the span of almost 130 years. They analyzed archived feathers dating as far back as 1890, using a technique called compound-specific stable isotope analysis, to better understand how the birds’ diets shifted in response to factors ranging from competition with humans to the changing climate.

“In the grand scheme of things, in our field of science, even 10 years of data is encouraging,” says Tyler Gagne, an assistant research scientist at the Aquarium and lead author of the new study, published February 14 in Science Advances. “This is a 130-year-long dataset, which is really amazing.”

Data, data everywhere

The study exemplifies the promise of the Ocean Memory Lab—the brainchild of Aquarium science director Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, who co-authored the publication together with two colleagues based in Hawaii, Dr. David Hyrenbach of Hawaii Pacific University and Molly E. Hagemann of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan conceived the Ocean Memory Lab as a way to learn about past ocean conditions and inform current conservation policy.

Identifying novel sources of long-term data is at the heart of the lab’s mission, Kyle says, because conservation projects often lack an informed baseline of ecosystem health to compare against.

“What are the conservation targets? What are we managing for? How do we know when we’re done?” he asks. “We often don’t have enough data or a sufficiently long-term record to provide informed answers to those questions.”

The solution, as Kyle sees it, may lie within the creatures themselves—or more precisely, in the chemistry of their tissues, which can record what they were eating, as well as clues about the surrounding ocean. Read more…

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…

We’re lacing up for the March for Science

Try to imagine one morning without science. You’d have no cell phone alarm to wake you up; no clean running water for your shower; no electricity to power your coffee maker. No weather forecast to help you plan your day.

We have science to thank for so many of the benefits of modern life, from our medicines to our food supply to our smartphones. Science also holds the promise of addressing our planet’s most serious environmental challenges. Innovations in renewable energy and clean vehicles can slow the pace of climate change. Rigorous research can better equip us to address the growing problem of plastic pollution in our ocean.

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Scientists with the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program release a rescued sea otter back into the wild.

At Monterey Bay Aquarium, science is at the core of our mission to inspire conservation of the ocean. That’s why we’re one of the first 100 partners in the national March for Science, a series of nearly 500 coordinated events across the United States and around the world on Saturday, April 22. Other partners include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), American Geophysical Union, Ecological Society of America, Society for Conservation Biology and Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The world is too interconnected, and the issues are too complex, to make decisions without the input of science,” says Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s science director.

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Aquarist Jennifer O’Quin Anstey checks in on baby seahorses (Hippocampus ingens) in the Aquarium’s lab.

Over the next two weeks, on this blog and through our Twitter and Facebook feeds, we’ll share more about how science contributes to ocean health. We’ll highlight research that’s leading to exciting discoveries about ocean wildlife, and science-based programs transforming the market for sustainable seafood.

We’ll celebrate science education programs that empower young people from diverse backgrounds to become citizen scientists and the ocean conservation leaders of the future. We’ll highlight policy work in support of science-based decision-making, and breakthroughs in deep-sea exploration.

This Earth Day, April 22, the movement will go global as people from all walks of life come together to stand up for science. Advocates in Washington, D.C., will be joined by people at satellite marches on six continents, celebrating science—and their hope for our shared future—with one voice.


Find a March for Science near you.

 

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