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…

For deep-ocean science, nothing beats being there

Today’s guest post on the importance of ocean science comes from Nancy Barr of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), our partner institution.

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Creatures of the deep sea. Photo © MBARI

The casual observer of the ocean might notice day-to-day changes in the waves and currents, or in the water’s color or smell. But how do we know what is going on far below the surface, if we are not there to observe it?

One key focus of MBARI technology development is to create a “persistent presence”—being where changes are taking place, as they happen. It means placing instrumentation in the deep ocean for extended periods of time, instead of relying on the occasional research cruise to make observations and collect data.

Tracking seafloor movement

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First Mate Paul Ban assists with the recovery of a tripod frame onto the R/V Rachel Carson, Photo by Roberto Gwiazda © MBARI 2017

Sediment moves from the continents into the deep sea both gradually, and in large bursts. This movement plays an important role in providing nutrition to deep-sea organisms. But it can also harm seafloor infrastructure, like underwater Internet cables—and it could possibly trigger geohazards like tsunamis.

MBARI engineers and scientists devised several instruments to record sediment-moving events as they happen. For the past two years, MBARI scientist Charlie Paull and an international research team have been monitoring movement in Monterey Canyon with a suite of instruments and sensors. The effort proved its worth in 2016, when the instruments detected a movement so strong, it swept a large volume of sediment down the canyon—carrying a one-ton steel tripod more than 3 miles down the canyon and burying it deep in the mud.

Read more…

Our commitment to science: white shark research

Monterey Bay Aquarium has since its inception affirmed that we are a science-driven organization, and that science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. That’s why we’re a partner with the national March for Science, a series of more than 500 events around the world on April 22.

As part of our commitment to the scientific process, our white shark research team works to understand and conserve these vital ocean predators. In advance of the March for Science, we’re taking a look at many of our scientific initiatives—in research, policy and education. Here’s a look at some of our recent white shark science highlights.

Annual Field Research

Every fall for the last decade, the Aquarium’s white shark research team has headed out to the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco to tag, track, and identify white sharks as they feed on elephant seals and sea lions. The team observes behavior, captures underwater video, and deploys electronic tracking tags that relay information about white shark migrations and habitat preferences. When the team returns to the lab, they combine and analyze all these data to better understand white shark populations and their role in maintaining the healthy ocean ecosystems that ultimately support all life on Earth.

Read more…

Our best Conservation & Science stories of 2016

It’s been an exciting year for ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We’ve shared how our care for the animals in our living collections—including snowy ploverscomb jellies, ocean sunfish and Pacific seahorses—contibutes to the conservation of their wild kin.

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The Aquarium helps rehabilitate threatened Western snowy plovers.

We’ve visited the Canadian cousins of Monterey Bay’s sea otters, explored how sea otters use tools, and assisted scientists working to decode the sea otter genome.

We’ve collaborated with our colleagues in Baja, Mexico on a number of conservation missions—one of them involving ancient shark mummies. And we joined forces with U.S. aquariums and zoos to call for stronger protections for the endangered vaquita porpoises of the Gulf of California.

As 2016 comes to a close, let’s look back at the top 10 highlights from this blog:

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A white shark approaches schooling sardines.

10. Camera to Crack a White Shark MysteryOur senior reseach scientist teamed up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalled. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

Read more…

Re-writing the future for coral reefs

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Today’s guest post, focused on the important role of coral reefs, comes from Kristen Weiss of the Center for Ocean Solutions—a partnership between Stanford Woods Insititute for the Environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.


“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” -Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

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A toadstool leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Coral reefs have suffered from an intense global bleaching event that began in 2014, threatening more than 40% of the world’s corals and sparking environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen to write a controversial “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef.” Global warming, plus last year’s El Niño event, are the key culprits in this mass bleaching.

Closer to home, reef habitats from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico have also been hard hit. Fortunately, despite this widespread devastation, there are still regions where at least some coral species have survived bleaching—in other words, where coral reefs are mostly dead, but still slightly alive. According to many coral biologists, that makes all the difference.

“In every bleaching event, there are survivors,” explains Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Corals sitting right next to a bleached one that are not themselves bleached. Why? Do those corals just have the right genes? The right algal symbiont? The right micro-habitat? And do they give rise to the next generation of growing corals?”

Read more…

Julie Packard: A bold vision for ocean health

Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard, who also sits on the board of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, offered a powerful vision of hope for the future of the ocean Friday morning at the third Our Ocean Conference convened by Secretary of State John Kerry  in Washington, D.C.

Julie Packard at Our Ocean 2016
Julie Packard at Our Ocean 2016

Julie shared the stage with other leading ocean philanthropists as she announced the Packard Foundation’s five-year, $550 million commitment to advance ocean science, protection and effective management. She held up Monterey Bay as an example of the transformation that’s possible in ocean health with an investment of time and energy to shape a thriving future for this vital living system.

For all their success in driving environmental improvements on land, foundations and philanthropists “over time we realized something was missing—the ‘other’ three-quarters of the planet, 99% of living space on Earth and the most prominent feature on this planet: the ocean,” Julie said.

Lunge-feeding humpback whales in Monterey Bay. Photo by Tyson Rininger
Lunge-feeding humpback whales in Monterey Bay. Photo by Tyson Rininger

Monterey Bay demonstrates—in dramatic fashion—what’s possible, she said. Its whales, sea otters and elephant seals were hunted to near-extinction, and the sardines that put Cannery Row on the map disappeared in “one of history’s most famous tales of fishery collapse.”

The wildlife is back, the bay’s ecosystems are robust, “Monterey Bay is now one of most studied pieces of ocean on the planet and California continues to be an incubator for ocean and climate solutions,” Julie said.

Read more…

Camera to crack a white shark mystery

The idea seemed like a long shot: Build a video camera that could attach to a great white shark for months at a time, withstand ocean depths of more than 3,000 feet, and sense the shark’s movements to selectively capture footage of its behavior.

But Monterey Bay Aquarium Senior Research Scientist Salvador Jorgensen, a white shark expert, thought it might have a chance if he joined forces with the talented minds at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalls with a smile. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

So Thom and Sal teamed up on a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

Read more…

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