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

Sea otters are handy with tools

What makes people different from other animals? Scientists used to think the ability to make and use tools was a distinguishing characteristic. That changed in the 1960s, when Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using sticks to fish termites out of mounds. Now, crows, dolphins and sea otters make the short list of creatures that use tools.

Sea otters dive in shallow coastal waters to collect hard-shelled prey like sea urchins, mussels, abalones, clams and snails. Some shells, like the calcium carbonate armor that protects snails, are harder to crack than others—so otters sometimes use rocks as anvils to break them open.

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A healthy coast supports a strong economy

 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.

PaulMichel, SuperintententMBNMS
Paul Michel, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, goes deep on ocean protection.

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.

Continue reading A healthy coast supports a strong economy

Mark Stone: The next steps to protect our coast

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.

Mark Stone
Mark Stone

California’s 29th Assembly District is where I call home, which includes portions of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Monterey counties. My district also includes Monterey Bayepicenter of the wildlife success story featured on Big Blue Live! The bay encompasses several California Marine Protected Areas and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where some of the world’s most amazing marine creatures converge off the Central Coast.

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. Weas Californians and as Americansshould be proud to claim Monterey Bay as our own.

Humpback whales and other marine life are on the rebound in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo ©Emily Simpson )
Humpback whales and other marine life are on the rebound in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo ©Emily Simpson )

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 futurefor 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 coastthe 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.

California marine protected areas
California marine protected areas

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 stateour 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.

Learn how to share your views and stay connected with the California State Assembly and State Senate.

M. Sanjayan: The community of nature

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 Dr. M. Sanjayan, a senior scientist and executive vice president with Conservation International. (It originally appeared on CI’s Human Nature blog.)  Sanjayan will be one of the presenters when PBS airs Big Blue Live starting August 31.

Dr. M. Sanjayan

Gaze into a tide pool and you’ll see all of life’s complexity, shrunken down to size. From the soft anemones waving sticky tentacles, to spiny sea urchins, to hard-shelled mussels, with crabs and gobies wedged in between, every square inch is occupied by something — pushing, scrambling and fighting for access to sunlight, or nutrients, or a mate.

In Monterey, California, tide pools might seem to pale in comparison with the town’s famous sea otters, kelp forests and breaching whales, but for one unlikely duo (an amateur biologist and a future Nobel Prize-winning American novelist) in the 1930s, these pools inspired a new way of looking at the natural world — one that shapes our modern understanding of ecology.

Lessons from the tide pool

Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck spent hours wandering through tide pools on the coasts of Monterey, discussing philosophy and life in the town that boomed as sardine production in its canneries peaked before collapsing after World War II due to overfishing. In his 1945 novel “Cannery Row,” Steinbeck immortalizes his friend Ricketts in the character of Doc. (To learn more about Ricketts and Steinbeck’s role in Monterey’s history, check out the excellent book The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival.)

Sea stars and other tide pool live.
Sea stars are part of a complex and interdependent tide pool ecosystem. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Ricketts — whose 1939 book Between Pacific Tides remains an essential resource on marine biology — viewed nature not as a collection of individual species that could be removed from their habitat and studied solely in jars, but as a larger system made up of many integrated parts. His crucial revelation, one that we take for granted today, was that animals behave differently when surrounded by others — when they are within a community of organisms. Today, his holistic view of nature is the backbone of much of the conservation work we do, where we strive to protect entire working ecosystems.

Steinbeck too was influenced by Ricketts’ view of nature, and in Of Mice and Men and his literary masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, he creates a giant interconnected world, where characters struggle to make a life for themselves against the backdrop of upheaval and ecological disaster. As in the tide pool, every action provokes a response that ripples through water, as it does through time.

More than 70 years ago, Steinbeck and Ricketts observed the Pacific coast and saw the interconnectedness of nature — and how people fit into the equation. In the years since, the rest of the world has been playing catch-up.

Save the ocean to save the fish

The complex, interactive nature of ecosystems goes beyond tide pools — it can be found wherever life exists, in rainforests, tundra, deserts and oceans.

For example, take Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, home to the most diverse coral reefs in the world. Conservation organizations, including Conservation International, often draw attention to sharks and manta rays — keystone species that hold tremendous economic value for tourism — but in order to give these species a chance at long-term survival, we understand we must protect their whole habitat, including the reefs that shelter fish that will one day be shark food.

The people of Raja Ampat are diving into their responsibilities as protectors of their marine heritage. (Photo © Shawn Heinrichs for Conservation International)

Here as everywhere, the role of humans in this ecosystem is also important. Over centuries, Indonesian communities have undoubtedly altered the lands and waters where they live, but — as in Monterey — people have also played a crucial role in recovery. Community-based fisheries and marine protected areas have helped both systems recover by incorporating human needs into the fabric of nature.

Thanks to some remarkable initiatives, today Monterey Bay is healthier than it has been in more than 200 years. In fact, coastal upwelling of nutrient-rich waters, and migration patterns of species like whales, dolphins, sardines and seabirds now result in an explosion of life each September. This “Super Bowl for nature” is a phenomenon I can’t wait to see for myself, and share with you.

Humpback whale off the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo © Richard Ryan
Humpback whale off the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo © Richard Ryan

For three nights starting August 31, I will be co-hosting Big Blue Live, a broadcast that will bear witness to one of the planet’s greatest revival stories, happening now on the edge of the Pacific. Co-produced by the BBC and PBS, I along with a superb team of scientists and TV presenters will base our reporting out of the legendary Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has been integral to the region’s revitalization.

Don’t forget to tune in starting August 31st at 8 p.m. EST/PST on PBS to see what we discover; if you live in a different time zone, check your local listings. Until then, check back on Human Nature to learn more about why this region, and the Pacific Ocean, is so special.

Learn more about the Aquarium’s ocean conservation initiatives.