Just as steelhead trout migrate from saltwater to freshwater and back, Environmental Sample Processors (ESPs)—first developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) for studies in the ocean—have been getting a lot of use in freshwater over the last five years.
This spring, MBARI’s ESP team installed an instrument to collect samples of “environmental DNA” from a coastal creek just north of Monterey Bay. Researchers will use these samples to track populations of threatened steelhead trout, endangered coho salmon, and invasive species in the creek.
In the process, they could help revolutionize environmental monitoring and fisheries management nationwide.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium isn’t alone in its drive to inspire conservation and host visitors sustainably. Thanks to steps by the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau and others, the region is increasingly positioning itself as a leader in sustainable hospitality—and earning recognition for its commitment.
Building on the area’s unique advantages, like having the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in its backyard, the Aquarium is leveraging results far beyond its doors, says Public Affairs Director Barbara Meister.
“The Aquarium is well-known and recognized, so to the extent that we can help with messaging or bring other partners along—whether hotels that are reducing plastic use or restaurants that are serving Seafood Watch-approved species—all that bodes well for our mission,” Barbara says.
The multifaceted push marks the latest chapter in the area’s long history of working to protect its environmental assets, she says. In recent years, communities around Monterey Bay have opted to draw only renewable energy from the electric power grid, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust is helping fishing crews connect with regional restaurants to serve locally caught seafood.
Last year, Monterey County became internationally ranked on the Global Destination Sustainability Index, which will help track its progress going forward. (Only three U.S. destinations have qualified, and Monterey County is the greenest of the three.)
At the bottom of the ocean, amid vast, pitch-dark expanses of mud, there are a few exceptional, rocky places: undersea mountains. Here, the muddy seafloor and burrowing worms give way to bedrock and beautiful gardens of corals and sponges.
Seamounts, as these peaks are known, “are the Yosemites of the deep sea that nobody sees,” says Dr. Jim Barry, a marine ecologist at MBARI—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Under the surface, right off the horizon, is this wonderful world that’s been developing, slowly but surely, like a sequoia forest.”
Some seamounts are covered with ancient corals and deep-sea sponges that stand a meter tall and resemble oak trees. They’re also home to anemones, clams, small crustaceans and all manner of fishes. Many of these creatures rely on smell instead of vision to find food in these inky waters, at least half a mile deep.
Seamounts are a frontier for scientific discovery, both for basic research, designed to fill knowledge gaps, and for applied research aiming to solve practical problems. Biotech companies, for instance, are interested in unique chemicals produced by deep-sea microbes, sponges, and mussels, which hint at pharmaceutical applications from antibiotics to fighting cancer.
Our blue parks are a source of pride for Californians, and all Americans. They are living proof that the sustainable use of our ocean goes hand in hand with robust coastal economies, valuable fisheries and thriving marine habitats.
But millions of acres of protected U.S. waters could be opened up for offshore oil and gas drilling, following an executive order issued in April, titled “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.”
Now is the time to speak up in defense of our national marine sanctuaries and monuments. A 30-day public comment period, which opened up in late June, is part of a federal review called for by the executive order.
UPDATE: The deadline for public comments has been extended. We now have until August 14 to make our voices heard.
The federal review targets parts of four national marine sanctuaries in California— Monterey Bay, Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones and Channel Islands—along with seven other sanctuaries and monuments in U.S. waters.
American national marine sanctuaries were created with bipartisan support, extensive scientific input and broad community participation. They generate billions of dollars each year, driving coastal tourism and supporting healthy fisheries.
“Monterey Bay Aquarium will do all we can to support our national marine sanctuaries, and to work for policies that protect vulnerable coastal communities from the threats that accompany offshore oil and gas development,” Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard said.
The public comment period is open through August 14. Please lend your voice! Visit the Federal Register Comment Pageand tell the White House why the U.S. must continue to protect our precious national marine sanctuaries and monuments.
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.
“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.
“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 votes are (mostly) tallied. The 2016 General Election was surely one for the history books—in many ways.
In California, voters confronted one of the longest ballots in the state’s history, with 17 ballot measures. The last of those measures, Proposition 67, was a referendum on a statewide ban on single-use carryout plastic bags. A majority of California voters needed to vote YES to uphold that first-in-the-nation law.
The Aquarium and our partners invested incredible time, energy and other resources to help win this ballot fight. Many officials, commissions, editorial boards, conservation groups, entertainers and other supporters also endorsed the measure.
Our visitors and online followers chatted about it on our social media platforms. Our neighbors and friends provided encouragement and helped spread the word. Countless people wore our buttons, carried our signs, and joined the movement in one way or another.
We want to take a moment to say thanks.
Through our collective work, we were able to make all the difference.
The opponents represented a handful of out-of-state plastic bag manufacturers who poured more than $6 million into defeating California’s historic law. In stark contrast, YES on 67 supporters included an extensive and diverse group of people and organizations that have California’s best interests in mind—and at heart.
We’d like to thank those organizations and individuals with whom the Aquarium worked most closely in the campaign to pass Prop 67. (This is not a comprehensive list.)
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 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.
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.
It’s all one ocean—and we’re connected with it in deep and surprising ways. Today’s guest post by Paul Michel, superintendent of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, addresses the relationship between resource protection and economic vitality in the Monterey Bay region.
The communities of Monterey Bay need a healthy coast and ocean. Our economy relies on tourism, commercial and recreational fisheries, recreation such as boating and surfing, and marine science. Even the ocean-influenced weather patterns here provide for some of the most productive agriculture in the United States.
In other words, the protection of our coastal and marine resources is essential to our long-term environmental and economic vitality.
The Monterey Bay region has a strong legacy of residents taking action—especially in the late 1980s and into the early ’90s. Oil and gas development, wastewater discharges and uncontrolled agricultural and urban runoff threatened the health and beauty of this beloved stretch of California coast.
Kayakers looking to get up close and personal with sea otters – and maybe snag a selfie – may unintentionally be causing harm to these beloved (and threatened) marine mammals.
When approached directly by people in the wild, sea otters often feel threatened and may dive or swim away to avoid them. This evasive maneuver can cost sea otters precious energy – energy they can only recoup by spending less time resting and more time hunting and eating.
Because portions of sea otter habitat are already at their carrying capacity, making up the lost calories can be challenging at best. and life-threatening at worst. It’s an especially big problem for nursing mother otters who are already energetically stressed by the burden of pup rearing.
Kayakers and other ocean goers like swimmers and paddleboarders likely don’t know that they’re putting sea otters at risk when they get too close, says Gena Bentall, the program coordinator of Be Sea Otter Savvy, a collaborative effort by the aquarium, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Friends of the Sea Otter to raise awareness of sea otter disturbances by tourists.
“The cuteness of sea otters is their own detriment in a way,” Gena says. “People aren’t really going to try to approach a less charismatic species. They’re essentially loving them to death by getting too close.”
While the occasional run-in may seem trivial, a single sea otter may be forced to evade people several times a day. Gena said the cumulative effect of chronic disturbances can spell “death by a thousand cuts” for some sea otters.
According to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary officials, wildlife disturbance of sea otters and other animals represents more than 40 percent of all violations recorded each year. (Disturbing sea otters and other marine mammals is a violation of federal law.)
Gena and her team are trying to quantify just how much these disturbances are costing sea otters, while also getting the word out about how to safely observe otters – from a reasonable distance.
Gena, a kayaker herself, said one of the major problems is that kayakers know too little about the consequences of approaching ocean wildlife. One major step is to have kayak rental outfits provide educational materials to all their customers. She praised one local outfitter that educates its customers in responsible behavior around the wildlife they might encounter, including putting stickers on its rental boats with tips on how to observe sea otters respectfully.
Be Sea Otter Savvy is concentrating its public awareness efforts on three hot spots where they’ve observed the most disturbance of sea otters: Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, Cannery Row, and Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.
“Our goal is to not scold people or shame people,” Gena says. “We’d rather get them to pay attention to wildlife, think about the ramifications of their behavior, and to have empathy for the animals.”
Be Sea Otter Savvy is looking for volunteers, particularly in San Luis Obispo County, to help monitor sea otter behavior and activity relative to marine recreation activities.
The best thing to do when out on the water, Gena says, is to keep your distance from sea otters as much as possible. When approaching, she adds, it’s better to float the kayak or paddleboard parallel to the animal from a safe distance, instead of paddling directly at them – a maneuver the otter may interpret as threatening. She also suggests putting the camera phone down and just being in the moment.
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 California Assemblymember Mark Stone, who represents the Monterey Bay region.
Last week, I had the privilege to attend a private screening of Big Blue Live at the aquarium. Not only was I able to see some of the highlights captured so far, but I also heard the broadcast’s producers and onscreen commentators express their excitement and passion about what they’ve experienced here. We – as Californians and as Americans – should be proud to claim Monterey Bay as our own.
I’m honored to have this natural treasure in my district, and pleased to be able to invite the world to witness its restoration. More importantly, I have a responsibility as a policy maker to help ensure it continues to recover and remain healthy in the future – for the sake of the wildlife and the people who live here.
I believe that some of the best ways to do so are to rely on sound science to drive ocean policy decisions and to engage constituents every step of the way. A shining example is the 1999 California Marine Life Protection Act, which directed the designation of a science-based network of marine protected areas (MPAs) along California’s coast – the first of its kind in the nation. Though it took until 2013 to complete all the designations, the result was a total of 124 MPAs that cover 16 percent of state waters. This outcome is a strong testament to Julia Platt’s legacy of environmental protection and leadership by policy makers, with the backing of scientists and other stakeholders.
As former vice chair of the California Coastal Commission, current chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Coastal Protection, and current member of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, I’m well positioned to help ensure that California remains a national and global model for effective ocean conservation policies. Monterey Bay area is the ideal place to apply those principles, especially with the support of the Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Hopkins Marine Station and other credible sources of information within reach. This special place is not only a living laboratory, it is also an economic engine and a vibrant coastal community.
The challenges are many, but so are the opportunities for success. Monterey Bay and the ocean at large face threats from climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and other impacts. The California Legislature has passed, and is currently considering, several environmental bills that would help address some of these issues. We continue to seek ways to do more to protect the ocean and coast that are the lifeline of our state – our home.
Please join us in our efforts to sustain the many marine animals and plants that grace our shores. Thank you for helping these initiatives advance, for the sake of future generations that stand to benefit.