Conservation & Science

Pinpointing plastic’s path to the deep sea

Until now, little has been known about how microplastics move in the ocean. A new paper by our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), just published in the journal Science Advances, shows that filter-feeding animals called giant larvaceans collect and consume microplastic particles in the deep sea.

Larvaceans are transparent tunicates that live in the open sea and capture food in sticky mucus filters. Plastic particles accumulate in the cast-off mucus feeding filters and are passed into the animals’ fecal pellets, which sink rapidly through the water, potentially carrying microplastics to the deep seafloor.

Researchers at MBARI documented that tadpole-like giant larvaceans consume microplastic beaads. Photo courtesy MBARI.

The new findings contribute to an emerging picture about the ubiquitous nature of ocean plastic pollution. Over the last decade, scientists have discovered tiny pieces of plastic in all parts of the ocean—including deep-sea mud. One recent study documented microplastic fibers in deep-sea sediments at levels four times greater than an earlier study had found in surface waters. Plastic has also been discovered in the tissues of animals at the base of the ocean food web. Another just-published study found that fish confuse plastic particles with real food items because it smells just like organic matter in the ocean.

Despite their name, giant larvaceans are less than 10 millimeters (4 inches) long, and look somewhat like transparent tadpoles. Their mucus filters—called “houses” because the larvaceans live inside them—can be more than 1 meter (3 feet) across. These filters trap tiny particles of drifting debris, which the larvacean eats. When a larvacean’s house becomes clogged with debris, the animal abandons the structure and it sinks toward the seafloor.

Principal Engineer Kakani Katija studies giant larvaceans during field expeditions in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy MBARI.

In early 2016, MBARI Principal Engineer Kakani Katija was planning an experiment using the DeepPIV system to figure out how quickly giant larvaceans could filter seawater, and what size particles they could capture in their filters. Other researchers have tried to answer these questions in the laboratory by placing tiny plastic beads into tanks with smaller larvaceans. Because giant larvacean houses are too big to study in the lab, Kakani decided to perform similar experiments in the open ocean, using MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

When she discussed this experiment with Postdoctoral Fellow Anela Choy—who studies the movement of plastic through the ocean—they realized that in-situ feeding experiments using plastic beads could also shine light on the fate of microplastics in the deep sea. Read more…

How do you tag a jellyfish?  

They’re so soft—so squishy! Where to put a tag—and why bother? Questions like these moved scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), Hopkins Marine Station and other institutions around the world to publish the first comprehensive how-to tagging paper for jellyfish researchers everywhere. This missing manual was long in the making

A wild sea nettle swims off Point Lobos near Carmel. Photo ©Bill Morgan

Tommy Knowles, a senior aquarist at Monterey Bay Aquarium, explains why.  Historically, ocean researchers demonized jellies as “blobs of goo that hurt you,” and that interfered with scientific gear. That changed in the  latter part of the 20th century as scientists grew keen to understand entire ecosystems, not just individual plants and animals. Knowing who eats what, how, where and when, they learned, is critical for conservation.

Jellyfish, however, remained a very under-appreciated member of the ecosystem for years, largely because so little was known about them.

Senior Aquarist Tommy Knowles and his colleagues work in the lab and in the filed to advance jellyfish science. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger

“People didn’t know how to keep them alive in the lab or even on the boat,” says Knowles. Today, the field is coming into its own at a time when climate change has added urgency to the need to understand ecosystems in order to preserve ocean health.

A growing subject of interest

Understanding jellies is a concern for fisheries managers, too, since some jellyfish species prey upon the young and compete for food with the adults of commercially important fish. Other jellies impact tourism when blooms of stinging species foul beaches.

It’s not all negatives. We know that jellyfish play important roles in healthy marine ecosystems, by sheltering juvenile fish and crabs under their swimming bells, and nourishing hundreds of ocean predators. Jellies are a significant food source for ocean sunfish (the largest bony fish on the planet) and the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, California’s state marine reptile.

A barrel jellyfish (Rhizostoma octopus) is tagged by a diver with an accelerometer using the “cable tie” method. Courtesy Sabrina Fossette/NOAA

As with other marine species that live and travel underwater—out of sight of human researchers—electronic data tags are useful tools for tracking jellies’ movements. Which gets back to the question: Just how do you tag a jellyfish? Read more…

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…

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…

Tackling a rising tide of plastic pollution

A torrent of plastic pollution flows into the ocean each year—stuff like discarded drink bottles, food wrappers, cigarette butts and straws. California voters are about to decide whether to uphold a statewide ban on single-use carryout shopping bags, which rank fourth among the types of trash found in coastal cleanups.

8 million tons of plastic debris enter the ocean each year. That's more than the total global production of plastic in 1961.
8 million tons of plastic debris enter the ocean each year. That’s more than the total global production of plastic in 1961. Photo courtesy CNN

Top ocean scientists recently put the scope of the challenge in perspective. The UC-Santa Barbara Benioff Ocean Initiative and the Monterey Bay Aquarium collaborated on a half-day plastic pollution science summit at the University of Southern California.

“We have to get our heads collectively around how much [plastic] might be entering the ocean every year,” said Dr. Roland Geyer, an associate professor of industrial ecology and green supply chain management with the Bren School at UCSB.

Global plastic production has far surpassed the production of metals like aluminum and steel. Globally, people have created and used 7 billion metric tons of plastic over the past 65 years—half of that in just the past 15 years.

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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