This summer, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary hosted Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlighted the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay, and celebrated the recovery of the bay as an ocean conservation success story of global significance. Many conservation efforts contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet, and we’eve highlighted several in a series of guest commentaries. This comes from Lindley Mease, a senior research analyst , and Kristen Weiss, an early career fellow – both at the Center for Ocean Solutions. The Center is a collaboration among the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, the Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
MPAs often aim to protect ocean habitats from local pressures, from fishing to offshore oil drilling. Research now suggests that they’re also an ideal way to address some local impacts of climate change. While resource managers might not be able to directly manage fossil fuel emissions, they can implement local mitigation and adaptation measures that help protect coastal ecosystems from impacts such as hypoxia (oxygen-deficient water) and ocean acidification.
Through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary host Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlights the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay each summer, and celebrates an ocean conservation success story of global significance. We’re publishing guest commentaries about conservation efforts that contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet. This comes from Kim Fulton-Bennett, who coordinates external communications for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
Lunging humpbacks and frolicking otters are potent symbols of the abundance of marine life in Monterey Bay. But the vast majority of animals in the bay, and in the ocean as a whole, live below the surface. To fully appreciate and protect the wonders of the bay, we need to find ways to map, explore and understand this invisible world.
For almost 30 years, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have explored the depths of the bay using high-tech tools such as robotic submersibles equipped with high-definition video cameras. Over the years we’ve progressed from simply looking around in awe to amassing vast databases of marine observations, conducting complex underwater experiments and documenting threats to deep-sea life.
MBARI’s research has revealed many previously unknown hot spots of biodiversity in the deep sea. In 2002, MBARI’s robotic vehicle Tiburon first explored the crest of Davidson Seamount, an underwater mountain range about 60 miles off the Big Sur coast. Flying over the rocky seafloor, 4,000 feet below the surface, Tiburon’s video cameras captured stunning images of massive corals growing over nine feet tall.
Over the next 10 years, MBARI conducted additional expeditions to Davidson Seamount in collaboration with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Video and data from these expeditions eventually convinced federal government officials that Davidson Seamount held unique animals and habitats that deserved protection. In 2009, the Sanctuary was expanded to include Davidson Seamount.
After almost 20,000 hours of deep-sea dives, MBARI researchers have compiled a unique database documenting not only deep-sea biodiversity, but also physical conditions in the ocean. By “mining” this database, researchers have made many discoveries, including the fact that oxygen concentrations deep in the bay have been gradually declining over the past 25 years. Scientists are still trying to figure out what this means for animals in the bay. It’s possible that some deep-sea animals could be forced to live closer to the surface, leaving certain depths more sparsely populated.
Tracking deep sea trash
This same database contains records of every piece of human debris and trash that MBARI researchers observed on the seafloor. In a 2013 paper, MBARI researchers used this unique data set to show for the first time where and how much trash was collecting in the depths of Monterey Canyon. This information has helped environmental organizations convince decision-makers and the public to reduce the amount trash that ends up in the ocean.
One of the biggest pieces of debris that MBARI discovered on the seafloor was a shipping container that was lost from a cargo vessel during a storm in February 2004. Using MBARI video, staff from the Sanctuary traced the origin of this container. Fines paid by the shipping company supported additional dives and research that showed how the container is affecting deep-sea animals—the first study of its kind in the world.
A more acidic ocean
MBARI researchers have also been at the forefront of research on ocean acidification, which poses a threat not just to marine animals in Monterey Bay, but around the world. Many researchers have tested the effects of acidified seawater on animals in the laboratory. MBARI’s efforts have focused on the more challenging task of measuring and studying the biological effects of pH shifts on animals in their natural habitat.
In the early 1980s, MBARI marine chemist Peter Brewer was one of the first researchers to suggest that carbon dioxide from human activities was dissolving into the ocean, making it more acidic. Brewer has spent the last 10 years working on automated systems for creating slight changes in the pH of seawater over a small patch of seafloor, superimposed on the natural daily and seasonal pH fluctuations in the surrounding seawater. Experiments based on MBARI’s system have been carried out in the Mediterranean, on the Great Barrier Reef, in Antarctica, and in the deep waters of Monterey Bay.
Because deep-sea animals are seldom seen, it’s easy to think of them as being relatively immune to effects of human activities. In his 2010 paper, Robison noted that overfishing, ocean acidification, and expanding low-oxygen zones in the ocean could potentially wipe out key organisms and cause irreversible changes in deep-sea food webs. Such shifts in deep-sea biodiversity could directly impact marine mammals, human fisheries, or even Earth’s climate. By keeping an eye on the invisible world below the surface, MBARI researchers are providing essential information about the health of Monterey Bay and of the world ocean.
Through September 2, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary are hosting Big Blue Live – an unprecedented series of live natural history broadcasts from PBS and the BBC. Big Blue Live highlights the remarkable marine life that gathers in Monterey Bay each summer, and celebrates an ocean conservation success story of global significance. We’re publishing guest commentaries about conservation efforts that contribute to the health of the bay and our ocean planet. This is from Kristen Weiss, an early career science fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions. The Center is a collaboration among the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, the Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
The story of sea otter loss and recovery has had dramatic consequences for the health of Monterey Bay’s kelp forests. Less than 100 years ago, sea otters were thought to be extinct along the California coast as the result of rampant overhunting by fur traders. While otter hunting was officially banned in 1911, there seemed little hope of recovery at the time.
Then, in 1938, a small population of otters was discovered off the Big Sur coast just south of Monterey. Since then, sea otters have made a modest comeback (about 3,000 individuals) thanks to their protected status.
They’re now a common sight in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary where they have helped catalyze the regrowth of kelp habitat. As Dr. Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station writes in his book The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, once otters recolonized Monterey Bay “they fed happily on sea urchins, and they left luxuriant kelp forest growing in their wake.”
Kelp Forests reach a tipping point
In nature, one plus one does not always equal two. Sometimes, small changes in human pressures or environmental conditions can result in disproportionately large responses in the ecosystem – potentially even collapse. Ecosystems can respond to stressors in nonlinear ways, displaying ecological thresholds (also known as “tipping points”) beyond which systems undergo dramatic change. The Center for Ocean Solutions is a collaborator in the Ocean Tipping Points project that aims to understand and predict where ecological thresholds might exist in marine habitats such as kelp forests.
As was the case in Monterey Bay, the loss of sea otters typically marks an abrupt tipping point for kelp forest habitat. As a keystone species, otters maintain kelp habitat by eating sea urchins, the main consumers of kelp. In the absence of otters, urchin populations can grow unchecked, their out-of-control grazing undermining kelp forests and creating “urchin barrens” devoid of the shelter and biodiversity that kelp ecosystems typically offer. Where kelp once harbored diverse assemblages of juvenile and adult fishes, invertebrates like urchins and shellfish now dominate a simplified habitat.
When such tipping points occur, the distribution of ecosystem benefits to humans can shift considerably. For example, kelp habitats support important commercial fish species and attract diving and snorkeling tourism. However, in the absence of otters, urchin fishermen often gain substantial benefits and may be opposed to management interventions aimed at otter reestablishment. These types of trade-offs highlight the difficulty of balancing social and ecological values in marine management.
To help managers address social and ecological complexity, Ocean Tipping Points project collaborators have outlined seven principles for managing ecosystems that are prone to tipping points (see infographic below), so that managers can better predict and prevent unwanted tipping points.
Hope for sea otters in Monterey Bay
In Monterey Bay, marine managers, scientists, and conservationists are working to promote sea otter recovery through research and active management. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program has been active for over 30 years, conducting important research on sea otters as well as caring for injured or stranded otters. To maintain healthy populations of otters, we need healthy marine environments.
At the Center for Ocean Solutions, researchers are working on projects such as the Kelp Forest Array and Environmental DNA to collect important information about water quality and species biodiversity in kelp forest habitat. These projects are helping identify what human-caused and natural threats may be impacting the bay so that we can better protect sea otter habitat into the future.
The expansion of sea otters along the Monterey coastline “left behind a string of changed shorelines and restored bay,” writes Palumbi. “Where there was once subtidal rock bristling with urchin spines, there now bloomed kelp forest with sea urchins and abalone restricted to crevices in the rock. Where kelp bloomed, there now thrived a bustling community of fish and invertebrates.”
While sea otters still have a long way to go to reach numbers comparable to historical population sizes, their initial recovery along California’s central coast and the related comeback of healthy kelp forest habitat here in Monterey Bay – offers hope for other species and regions affected by significant human activity.
Thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface lies a hidden world of undiscovered species, ancient animals and unique seabed habitats—as well as a vast untapped store of natural resources including valuable metals and rare-earth minerals. There’s growing demand globally to tap these minerals, which are key components in everything from cars to computers, skyscrapers and smartphones. And there are proposals around the world to begin mining the seafloor: in the Indian Ocean, off Papua New Guinea, and in the Red Sea.
Deep sea mining will have impacts on ecosystems that are lightly mapped and poorly understood. So, researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey and co-authors from leading institutions around the world propose a strategy for balancing commercial extraction of deep-sea resources with protection of diverse seabed habitats. Their approach, published this week in the journal Science, is intended to inform upcoming discussions by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that will lay the groundwork for future deep-sea environmental protection and mining regulations.
“Our purpose is to point out that the ISA has an important opportunity to create networks of no-mining marine protected areas (MPAs) as part of the regulatory framework they are considering at their July meeting,” says lead author Lisa Wedding, an early career science fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions. “The establishment of regional MPA networks in the deep sea could potentially benefit both mining and biodiversity interests by providing more economic certainty and ecosystem protection.”
Adds co-author Sarah Reiter, an ocean policy research analyst at the Monterey Bay Aquarium: “We’re advancing an approach that’s grounded in the best available science, consistent with international law, and feasible given political will.”
The Center for Ocean Solutions is a collaboration among Stanford University, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). It works to solve the major problems facing the ocean and prepares leaders to take on these challenges.