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…

Counting fish like a BOSS

Counting fish in the ocean isn’t easy—particularly when they swim among jagged rocks and along undersea cliffs hundreds of feet below the waves. To help, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has developed a new camera system called the Benthic Observation Survey System, or BOSS.

The BOSS camera design was fine-tuned, including simulated deployment in MBARI’s test tank, before it was placed in the ocean. BOSS photos ©MBARI

A five-foot metal cylinder that features an array of cameras and lights, the BOSS is designed to be lowered from a ship to the seafloor and land upright on rocky terrain. There, it will help scientists survey fish populations using eight high-definition video cameras.

Researchers and policymakers need this technology to find out more about life in the ocean and how to better protect it. MBARI developed the BOSS with input from investigators at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and The Nature Conservancy .

“The scientists I’m working with are looking at areas that previously were heavily fished out,” explains MBARI staff engineer Chad Kecy, who led the effort to design and build the BOSS. Chad and his colleagues are trying to get a better understanding of how fish populations are recovering in these areas, what species are present, how big they are and where they swim.

Chad likes the challenge of solving problems on a tight timeline. The BOSS had to be built and tested in a matter of months, because the scientists who planned to deploy it already had research trips scheduled on boats that could not wait.

“Now the scientists are busy analyzing all this video they were able to capture with the tool that we developed,” Chad says.

Mary Gleason, science director for The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program and who helped develop the BOSS, says it can fill important gaps in existing data, based on its inaugural voyage: “We showed that we could get 400 video surveys done across 300 miles of coastline during one three-week cruise. So that’s pretty efficient in terms of data quantity.”

Read more…

Julie Packard: Honoring Bill Gates for his work to protect our planet, improve the human condition

The David Packard Award honors business leaders who work to make the planet more sustainable.

Since 2014, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has periodically honored leaders whose activities and achievements embody the qualities of thought and action that my father, David Packard, held dear. These individuals have effectively worked to make the future of our planet surer and more sustainable.

This year, we recognized visionary Microsoft co-founder and philanthropic innovator Bill Gates. Bill has done so much to improve the human condition—by harnessing technology to advance social good, and by launching bold philanthropic initiatives to make lives better around the world and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

We honored Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for his work, as a business leader and a philanthropist, to improve the human condition.

We paid tribute to the scope and the focus of Bill’s thinking and his commitment to using science and technology to improve the future for the people on our planet. It’s a conviction he shares with my father. Because of the extraordinary success of Microsoft, the Gates Foundation has had the resources to tackle some of the largest problems confronting the world, and Bill and Melinda’s vision and strategic approach are yielding extraordinary results.

Our 300 guests at the award dinner—representing Silicon Valley’s most iconic technology company leaders, along with global ocean conservationists and philanthropists—heard from Bill and our award dinner chair, Meg Whitman, during an engaging “fireside chat”. They covered topics from the role technology can play in environmental conservation, to new approaches philanthropy can bring to pressing global challenges, and the importance of optimism. Read more…

Science: the foundation for climate solutions

The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Monterey Bay Aquarium works on multiple fronts to address the ocean impacts of climate change. Here, we present several recent scientific findings on the complex ocean-climate connection.


Science powers the Aquarium’s mission to inspire ocean conservation. It’s the basis of our public education programs, our work to protect vulnerable marine species, and our efforts to address climate change and ocean acidification.

We advocate for policies—from the local to global levels—to reduce carbon emissions, end our reliance on fossil fuels, promote clean energy and mitigate the unavoidable impacts underway. And we believe those policies must be based on the best available scientific evidence.

The Aquarium conducts climate research to help fill those gaps, often in collaboration with our peers. Engineers and scientists at our partner institution, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), are developing new tools to study and monitor ocean change.

To solve the climate crisis, we must invest in science, and use science to inform our decision-making. Here are a few recent studies that might help point the way toward climate solutions.

Read more…

For white sharks, an oasis, not a desert

This spring, a diverse team of ocean scientists headed to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, seeking to explore the vast and mysterious home of one of the world’s top ocean predators: the white shark.

White sharks tagged along the California coast guided researchers to the offshore waters where they spend half the year. Photo by Steven K. Webster/Monterey Bay Aquarium

Guided by the sharks and their need for a steady supply of food, the researchers sailed into the heart of what was once deemed an oceanic “desert.” They discovered that the open Pacific, particularly an expanse dubbed the White Shark Café, teems with abundant and unusual life forms—organisms that may help explain the fascinating behaviors of white sharks on the high seas.

“The Café is far from the desert it was thought to be,” says Aquarium research scientist Dr. Sal Jorgensen. “It is home to an abundance of life that satellite imaging is not detecting. In fact, for white sharks, it is more of an oasis.”

Researchers spent a month at the White Shark Café aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor. Photo courtesy Schmidt Ocean Institute

The White Shark Voyage team embarked from Honolulu for a month-long journey aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor and traveled east to waters halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

Headed by principal scientist Dr. Barbara Block of Stanford University, the research team aboard the Falkor included marine biologists, engineers and oceanographers from Monterey Bay Aquarium, Stanford, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), University of Delaware, NOAA, Montana State University and ocean tech innovator Saildrone.

While no one knew what they’d find, everyone hoped to gather insights about what might be driving the behaviors of white sharks, and what role this offshore habitat plays in the lives of these apex ocean predators.

Read more…

Inspiring the teachers who inspire new generations

What can you find in a one-by-one-foot patch of ground? An entire world of information. Just ask Kim Cornfield’s fourth graders. This tiny “quadrat” marked off with sections of PVC pipe, serves as a microcosm of the local environment throughout the year. It’s a great tool for teaching young people about the land, and can even propel students toward bigger things, like devising a campus cleanup initiative—or pursuing a career in the sciences.

By participating in Aquarium Teacher Institutes, educators learn to help their students conduct field research using easy-to-create tools.

Kim, who’s been teaching at the International School of Monterey for seven years, learned about quadrats at a free, week-long Teacher Professional Development Program offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one in a range of programs the Aquarium created to serve teachers from the Monterey Bay region—and beyond. More than 140 instructors participate each year—almost  2,700 since the program’s inception.

For educators, inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards can be invigorating and inspirational. It’s also a lot of hard work. Many teachers say the Aquarium has helped them re-engage and reconnect with students in ways they hadn’t imagined. They return to their classrooms with a new sense of energy and purpose.

Read more…

On World Oceans Day, it’s time to protect Earth’s largest habitat

As we celebrate World Oceans Day, it’s too easy to forget about the deep sea. It’s the largest habitat on the planet, and is increasingly threatened by human activities. Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists, and our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, are working to understand and protect the deep ocean. It’s a big job—and we’ll need your help.

To bring the message about the deep ocean to a wider public, Executive Director Julie Packard and MBARI President and CEO Chris Scholin shared their thoughts about safeguarding the deep sea in an op-ed column published in today’s New York Times.

“The oceans are the largest home for life on our planet and the blue heart of Earth’s climate system,” they write. “We must use them wisely. Otherwise, we risk using them up.”

You can read the full commentary, and their action plan for the deep sea, here.

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