Conservation & Science

Pulling plastic off the shelf

Cheers to a clean ocean! At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we’re working to reduce plastic pollution by making changes right here at home.

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An albatross investigates a plastic toothbrush that washed up on its island—and might look like food. Photo by NOAA / David Slater

Single-use plastic may be convenient for a few minutes. But once it’s out of our hands, it adds to a growing global problem that threatens the health of marine wildlife like fish, turtles and seabirds. These animals can become entangled in plastic trash like six-pack rings, plastic bags and abandoned fishing nets. As the plastic pollution breaks apart into smaller pieces called microplastics, many animals mistakenly ingest it—filling their stomachs with toxic trash instead of needed nutrition.

At the Aquarium, we’re tackling ocean plastic pollution through education, business initiatives and science-based policies. We also took a look around and identified the parts of our own operations where we could cut back on single-use plastics. These changes take creative thinking and ongoing conversations with our suppliers, staff and guests. But through trial and error, we’re making progress.

One year ago, we reported on how we’ve reduced single-use plastic in our cafe, restaurant and gift shops. Since then, we’ve challenged ourselves to go further. Next time you visit, you might spot a few upgrades.

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These stainless steel bottles in the Aquarium’s cafe have been sanitized and filled with chilled, filtered water.

A plastic-free beverage case

Let’s start with the substance that defines aquariums: water.

In light of the growing scientific evidence that plastic pollution is harming the ocean animals we love, we stopped selling water in plastic bottles. Our guests, however, let us know they wanted to be able to purchase water during their visits to the Aquarium. We began carrying boxed water, with 74 percent plant-based packaging—but the other 26 percent included plastic. We knew we could do better.

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Yogurt parfaits are now made in-house and served in reusable glass jars.

Earlier this year, we removed the boxed water and replaced it with two new products: recyclable aluminum water bottles, and stainless steel reusable bottles filled with filtered water. Guests can replenish them at the water refilling stations on the Aquarium floor.

We also sell teas and sodas in recyclable glass. We’ve replaced plastic yogurt cups with house-made parfaits in canning jars. And we now serve all coffee drinks in reusable mugs, for an ocean-friendly wake-me-up.

Solving the plastic puzzle

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These toys feature new packaging with significantly less plastic.

Many of our guests choose to remember their visit with a souvenir from the gift shop—like a plush sea otter to snuggle or a ballcap for the beach. We want these products to be a lasting reminder of our shared responsibility to protect the ocean.

That’s why we’ve been working with our retail and culinary partner, Service Systems Associates (SSA), to minimize the plastic packaging around the products we sell. Less than 7% of our retail items are packaged with single-use plastic; we aim to further reduce this number through 2021.

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The manufacturer of these puzzles ditched the plastic cellophane, instead keeping the boxes closed with stickers.

That means reaching out to product manufacturers to discuss alternative packaging—and several have embraced the challenge. One toy maker agreed to change the packaging on 26 items arriving in SSA locations across the country this summer, preventing about 9,000 pounds of single-use plastic waste. Another made the switch from cellophane to stickers to keep its puzzle boxes closed. A third company is developing new packaging to eliminate the plastic casing around its personalized wooden pens.

That’ll come in handy when you sign a postcard from our dazzling Monterey Bay.

Turning the tide on plastic

The latest push to reduce single-use plastic is part of a collective wave. A coalition of 19 U.S. aquariums, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, have joined together to raise public awareness of plastic pollution in freshwater and ocean habitats.

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By switching to reusables, we can make a difference for the ocean.

With that effort comes a commitment to reduce single-use plastics within our own walls, starting with bags, straws and beverage bottles.

We all share responsibility for protecting our blue planet. The everyday choices we make, and the products we choose, are opportunities to protect marine wildlife and habitats. Aquariums are working together to make the right decisions easier—driven by the shared belief that the solution to the plastic problem is in our hands.

We hope to prevent more plastic from reaching the ocean, making a healthier home for marine animals like turtles, puffins and sea lions. You can help! Join our aquarium community, say “no thanks” to single-use plastics, and choose reusable alternatives.


Learn how plastic pollution impacts animals, our ocean and us at www.ourhands.org.

 

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…

Science shows a path to recover Pacific bluefin tuna

The ruby-red slice of maguro presented on a piece of nigiri sushi does nothing to convey the sheer power of Pacific bluefin tuna. These top ocean predators can grow to be twice the size of lions; at top swimming speed, they’re faster than gazelles. But it’s been a huge challenge to halt the decline of these incredible fish.

Pacific bluefin tuna at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder

The Pacific bluefin population is down to just 2.6 percent of its unfished level—yet it continues to face intense fishing pressure. The fish are prized commercially, command staggering market prices, and are difficult to manage because they cross through national and international waters on trans-Pacific migrations.

Monterey Bay Aquarium has long advocated for use of the best available science to inform management decisions that can bring the Pacific bluefin population back to a healthy level. Now researchers at the Aquarium, together with colleagues from Harvard University and the National Museum of National History, have identified new evidence of migration trends that underscore the need for comprehensive fishing restrictions and enforcement across the Pacific—especially in the Western Pacific, where all Pacific bluefin spawn, and where most of the fish are caught.

The source of spawning-age fish

The analysis, published in Science magazine, concludes that—in many years—the majority of spawning-age bluefin tuna in the Western Pacific are migrants who left the waters off Japan when they were just one to two years old, and spent the next four to six years on rich feeding grounds off the coasts of California and Mexico, before returning to the Western Pacific.

New research supports the need to limit fishing for Pacific bluefin tuna — and to enforce the limits — in order to recover the species. Photo courtesy NOAA

If too many of the young fish are caught in the Western Pacific before they can make the migration east, there won’t be enough returning fish years later to maintain or recover the already-depleted population.

And if fishing pressure is too great in the Eastern Pacific, the fish won’t survive to make the migration back to their spawning grounds near Japan.

“These fish were passing through two gauntlets, in the west and in the east, before they had a chance to spawn,” said Dr. Andre Boustany, the Nereus Principal Fisheries Investigator for the Aquarium. “Many fish have to pass through both the Western and Eastern Pacific Ocean. So by taking too many of them out in both locations, we end up with a severely depleted population.

“We need much better management of the fishery in the west, and to continue to at least maintain current management in the east,” he added.
Read more…

Aquariums join forces to combat plastic pollution

Nineteen aquariums across the United States have joined forces in a new Aquarium Conservation Partnership to address one of the gravest threats facing ocean and freshwater animals: plastic pollution.

The partners just launched a nationwide consumer campaign, “In Our Hands,” and made their own business commitment to drive a shift away from single-use plastic among aquarium visitors, in their communities and beyond.

Julie Packard sports a reusable shopping bag.

“The public trusts aquariums to do what’s right for the health of the ocean and for ocean wildlife,” said Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “We’re just beginning to understand the full impacts of ocean plastic pollution on ecosystems, marine life and human health. But we already know enough to say that now is the time to act.”

Aquariums have replaced plastic straws with paper straws. Many also sell reusable glass and metal straws in their gift stores.

Through the “In Our Hands” campaign, the aquariums hope to empower their 20 million visitors, along with millions more people in their communities. The campaign focuses on innovative alternatives, and includes a website that encourages viewers learn more about the growing plastic pollution problem and be a part of the solution.

All 19 partner aquariums are shifting away from single-use plastic in their own operations. As the campaign launches, they’ve already cut out all plastic straws and single-use plastic bags. They have also committed to significantly reduce or eliminate plastic beverage bottles by December 2020, and showcase innovative alternatives to single-use plastic in their facilities. Read more…

Teens tackle an unlikely source of plastic pollution: wayward golf balls

In the chilly Pacific waters off Carmel Beach, Alex Weber was practicing holding her breath and diving in search of jade in May 2016. Swimming down to the seafloor, she instead made a surprising discovery: a trove of lost golf balls. Some were practically new; others might have dated back decades.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston hold a few of the thousands of errant golf balls they’ve recovered from Carmel Bay.

Alex, a lifelong Californian who is now 17, had volunteered in the past for beach cleanups, scouring the shore with a particular eye for plastic pellets.

“I’d been spending so much time in the sand picking up tiny micro-plastics. I thought these golf balls would make such a big difference,” she says.

She decided to make a practice of kayaking and swimming out to collect them in mesh “goodie bags”—the kind she’s since found can hold some 30 pounds of balls each.

Her efforts drew the attention of her 16-year-old high school classmate Jack Johnston.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston inspired a coalition to carry on the clean-up effort.

“I was at the beach the same day Alex pulled out that first load, and thought, ‘What is happening? Are those just in our ocean?’ I immediately wanted to get involved,” he says.

The two have since collected close to 10,000 golf balls from Carmel Bay. Jack, a Canadian transplant who took to the frigid waters around the Monterey Peninsula long before he acquired his first wetsuit, says—depending on the weather —a day’s haul might range from several hundred to well over a thousand balls.

The Weber family’s garage is now stacked with baskets full of golf balls, which Alex and Jack plan to recycle or transform into an art project. In a testament to how much two determined teens can accomplish, their labors have also rippled into a collaborative undertaking that has drawn together federal officials, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and nearby Pebble Beach Golf Links. Read more…

Monterey Bay is powering up for clean energy

California’s Central Coast is known for its rocky shorelines, fresh seafood and superb seaside golf. Now, it’s poised to become one of the state’s leaders in renewable energy.

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Monterey Bay Community Power will source more energy from clean sources like solar. “Renewable Energy Development in the California Desert” by Bureau of Land Management is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties recently came together to establish a new power authority that gives local communities greater control over the sources of their electricity. The project, called Monterey Bay Community Power, allows communities in the Monterey Bay region to accelerate progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions—the primary driver of climate change and ocean acidification—and serve as a model for development and use of renewable energy development.

Monterey Bay Community Power enables participating communities to become clean power capitals. The authority intends to purchase almost 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal power. That’s more than double the percentage of clean power currently offered by the area’s private utilities. Profits from energy sales to customers in the tri-county region will stay in the community to help fund renewable energy projects, create jobs and stimulate the local economy.

Read more…

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