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. Continue reading Pinpointing plastic’s path to the deep sea

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? Continue reading How do you tag a jellyfish?  

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. Continue reading Using science to save ocean wildlife

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

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?”

Continue reading Re-writing the future for coral reefs

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.

Continue reading Tackling a rising tide of plastic pollution

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.

Continue reading Julie Packard: A bold vision for ocean health

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.

Continue reading Camera to crack a white shark mystery

MBARI’s new ear on the sounds of the ocean

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have learned a lot about Monterey Bay using robotic submersibles to look deep below the bay’s surface. Now they can listen to the bay as well, using an ultra-sensitive underwater microphone. Sounds recorded by this hydrophone have already provided surprising information, including evidence that beaked whales, though rarely seen, are common in the outer bay.

MBARI placed a deep-sea hydrophone on the seafloor using a remotely operated vehicle. The green cable carries power to the hydrophone and data back to shore. Photo courtesy MBARI
MBARI placed a deep-sea hydrophone on the seafloor using a remotely operated vehicle. The green cable carries power to the hydrophone and data back to shore. Photo courtesy MBARI

In July 2015, MBARI researchers installed a broadband hydrophone on Smooth Ridge, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from shore and 900 meters (3,000 feet) below the sea surface. Since that time, signals from the hydrophone have been relayed back to shore in real time, 24 hours a day, using MBARI’s cabled ocean observatory, the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS).

The new hydrophone doesn’t look very impressive. It’s just a metal cylinder about two inches in diameter, mounted on a metal tripod on the muddy seafloor. But it is extremely sensitive and can pick up a vast range of sounds, including those too low and too high for humans to hear.

A spectrum of sound

“We’re trying to characterize the soundscape of Monterey Bay,” says John Ryan, the biological oceanographer in charge of the project. “This means looking at the whole spectrum of sounds that we record and identifying all of the phenomena they represent. This includes biological sounds such as vocalizations of marine mammals, the sounds of physical processes such as wind and rain, and the sounds of human activities.”

MBARI’s deep-sea hydrophone is located on Smooth Ridge in the Monterey Canyon, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from shore. Base image: Google Earth
MBARI’s deep-sea hydrophone is located on Smooth Ridge in the Monterey Canyon, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from shore. Base image: Google Earth

Most adults (at least those who haven’t attended too many rock concerts) can hear sounds from about 20 Hertz (the low rumble of an earthquake) up to 16,000 Hertz (the high-pitched buzzing of a mosquito). The new hydrophone can pick up sounds ranging from 10 Hertz to 128,000 Hertz.

During a recent meeting with underwater acoustics experts, Ryan played a few of the distinctive sounds recorded with the hydrophone.

Here’s a recording of dolphins:


And here’s one of humpbacks:

Continue reading MBARI’s new ear on the sounds of the ocean

Fragile butterflies of the sea

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations will gather in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. In advance of COP21, Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the serious ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today’s post focuses, in words and video, on the impact ocean acidification is having on some small but significant ocean animals.


Acidification illustrationOur colleagues at the independent Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have been studying and documenting the lives of pteropods, swimming snails of the sea that play a critical role in ocean food webs. They’re delicate and beautiful animals, sometimes called “sea butterflies”, with interesting ways of finding food in the deep ocean. They’re also particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification, the change in chemistry that occurs as the ocean absorbs more of the rampant carbon dioxide produced when we burn fossil fuels.

Continue reading Fragile butterflies of the sea

Tracking avalanches – under the sea

Underwater avalanches and turbidity currents carry huge amounts of sediment, organic material and pollutants down submarine canyons and into the deep sea. Yet geologists know very little about how sediment moves during these events. This month, in what may be the most ambitious submarine-canyon study ever attempted, marine geologists from several countries are placing dozens of sophisticated instruments in Monterey Canyon. The Coordinated Canyon Experiment (CCE) promises to give scientists a uniquely detailed and comprehensive view of sediment movement within the canyon.

Illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Image: Photo © 2015 MBARI
Illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Image: Photo © 2015 MBARI

The project is being led by geologist Charlie Paull of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), in collaboration with researchers from the United States Geological Survey, Ocean University of China and two British instiutions: the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and the University of Hull.

Paull and his fellow researchers hope to learn what triggers underwater sediment flows, how fast they move and how far they travel. They’ll also study how sediment flows scour the seafloor and reshape the canyon over time.

Beach-ball sized BEDs

In addition to deploying fixed instrument arrays, four beach-ball-sized “benthic event detectors” (BEDs) will be buried in the sediment. When flows occur, the BEDs will be carried along with the sediment. Sensors inside each BED will record how fast they move, how far they go and how they’re tumbled by the flow.

Four BEDs, or Benthic Event Detectors, are being deployed in Monterey Canyon as part of the experiment. This illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Photo © 2015 MBARI/Krystle Anderson
Four BEDs, or Benthic Event Detectors, are being deployed in Monterey Canyon as part of the experiment. This illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Photo © 2015 MBARI/Krystle Anderson

Unusual instruments such as the BEDs are necessary because the floor of Monterey Canyon is such a dynamic place. The profile of the undersea Monterey Canyon resembles Arizona’s Grand Canyon, with steep-sided walls and a narrow, winding canyon floor. Both have central channels filled with sand.

Sand in the Grand Canyon is moved down-canyon by the Colorado River. After studying the oceanic “river of sand” in Monterey Canyon for 15 years, Paull and his colleagues have concluded that sediment moves down Monterey Canyon in a variety of ways.

PrintSome is moved by strong currents that carry just a small volume of sediment. More dramatic flows, known as turbidity currents, are dense, fast-moving slurries of sand and water that can travel kilometers down the canyon in a matter of minutes. Still other flows occur when sediment on the floor of the canyon becomes unstable and slumps down-canyon. To make matters even murkier, some events could involve all three of these processes.

Unraveling the mechanics of sediment flows

During the Coordinated Canyon Experiment, researchers hope to study all of these different types of sediment flows by gathering detailed data from a variety of instruments over a large area. As Paull put it, “We want to determine not just when sediment moves in the axis of the canyon, but how it moves, how long it moves and where it moves. The point is to cover as much of the canyon as possible, from the head down to a couple of thousand meters depth.”

MBARI-detector in the sediment
MBARI used an ROV to dig a pit on the seafloor to place one of four Benthic Event Detectors. Photo © 2015 MBARI

“We usually measure just a snapshot in time and space, so we’re like the blind men and the elephant – just seeing part of the picture,” he added. “By putting as many instruments in the canyon as we can, all at one time, we’ll get a better view of what’s going on down there.”

The CCE is scheduled to continue until spring 2017. Because it’s so hard to communicate with instruments on the seafloor, the researchers won’t get their first detailed information until April 2016. That’s when MBARI’s underwater robots service the instruments and retrieve the data – following what’s expected to be a strong El Niño winter. If the Central California coast experiences powerful storms and unusually large waves, they could sweep huge volumes of sand from the beaches of Monterey Bay and into the head of Monterey Canyon, potentially triggering underwater avalanches.

Paull is optimistic that the team will collect plenty of interesting data – even if not all of the equipment survives the onslaught.

“There is always a risk in putting instruments in the canyon,” Paull said. “But if we don’t take risks, we’re never going to be able to figure out what’s going on down there.”