Aviculture Curator Aimee Greenebaum worked with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s African penguins for more than a decade before ever seeing one in the wild. She was in South Africa last fall to help rehabilitate sick and injured penguins and feed starving chicks. She’s quick to point out that it’s less glamorous than it sounds.
“They don’t smell good, I’m not gonna lie,” Aimee says with a laugh. But, she adds, “They’re pretty cool. They’re tough little birds.”
Aimee worked for several weeks with the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB)—the leading conservation organization working to recover this endangered species. African penguins, which stand around two feet tall, don’t hail from the land of snow. The weather at the southern tip of the continent is a lot like Monterey, Aimee says.
She spent hours each day hunched on a stool, in pens that held 70 or 80 rescued penguins, corralling one bird at a time between her knees. Many required force-feeding.
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.
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.
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.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard was in New York City from June 5-9 to attend the United Nations’ first-ever Ocean Conference. Aquarium staff members presented at several key sessions, on issues ranging from ocean acidification and plastic pollution to sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Here, Julie reports on the conference’s significant progress toward ocean health.
Last week, the United Nations Headquarters in New York City was especially blue, and the ocean was on everyone’s mind. Inside and out, the building was adorned with ocean-themed sculptures and stunning marine-life photographs. The halls were filled with noted ocean conservation leaders including Sylvia Earle, Sir Richard Branson and Prince Albert of Monaco.
They joined representatives from governments, organizations and businesses around the world, who had gathered for the first-ever UN Ocean Conference with one goal in mind: to protect the sea that supports all life on our planet.
I attended as part of our Monterey Bay Aquarium team, to listen, meet with delegates and call for action on three critical fronts: environmental and social sustainability of global fisheries and aquaculture; steps to address the causes and impacts of climate change and ocean acidification; and new commitments to reduce the flow of plastic pollution from land to sea.
It was gratifying to see the tangible results of our team’s participation in the growing collaborations among NGOs, governments and business leaders. We heard from many attendees that the Aquarium’s presence—and our ideas—have had a real impact.
On June 9, the final day of the conference, the UN’s 193 member nations unanimously approved a global call to action that mirrors the Aquarium’s own ocean conservation goals. They agreed “to act decisively and urgently [for ocean health], convinced that our collective action will make a meaningful difference to our people, to our planet and to our prosperity.”
Countries resolved to improve fisheries management and restore fish stocks to sustainable levels, end harmful fisheries subsidies and crack down on illegal fishing. They agreed to pursue solutions for ocean acidification, rising sea levels and ocean warming—with most nations reaffirming their commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change as an important roadmap toward a more stable planet. And they pledged to adopt new strategies to reduce the flow of single-use plastics, like disposable bags and cutlery, that ultimately make their way to the ocean.
“The Ocean Conference has changed our relationship with the ocean,” Peter Thomson, president of the UN General Assembly, told the delegates. “Henceforth none can say they were not aware of the harm humanity has done to the ocean’s health. We are now working around the world to restore a relationship of balance and respect towards the ocean.”
The first Ocean Conference was convened in support of the updated sustainable development goals adopted by the UN in 2015, which included a new Goal 14: “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” by 2030.
The global community is joining together for the ocean, the heart of Earth’s climate system. The Aquarium will continue to be part of the conversation, working with a growing network of government, NGO and business partners to make a difference for the future of our ocean.
Over Earth Day weekend, April 22-24, tech-savvy folks will come together at sites around the world, including Monterey Bay Aquarium, to geek out for ocean health. Working in teams, they’ll hatch innovative tech solutions like websites and smartphone apps with a common goal: to tackle the problem of worldwide overfishing.
The Fishackathon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is now in its third year. And this one promises to be the biggest yet, with more than 400 coders in 12 host cities in the United States, and more than three dozen worldwide. Already, there are plans for events in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region. An expert panel of judges will select a winner from each site.
“We had a blast!” Isha Dandavate, a member of the winning team, told the UC-Berkeley news service. “I can’t even express how cool it was. Having the hackathon in an aquarium has sort of ruined us for all other hackathons.”
You may have heard of electronic tagging — technology that lets scientists track the movement of animals. Experts at Monterey Bay Aquarium and our partner institutions have used electronic tags to track sea otters along the California coast, as well as white sharks and bluefin tunas on their meandering marine migrations.
Now we’re cheering another kind of fish tracking: the kind that happens after they’re caught. Following the movement of seafood through the supply chain, a practice known as traceability, is key to ensuring fish products sold in the U.S. are sustainable and legal.
In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama got the ball rolling on a federal effort to fight IUU fishing on a global scale. The newly announced seafood traceability program would make it easier for regulators to electronically track seafood coming into the United States — and keep illegal fish products out.
Margaret Spring, the Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation & Science and Chief Conservation Officer, welcomed the release of the proposed rule.
“IUU fishing threatens ocean health and food security, and harms coastal economies and communities,” she said. “If designed correctly, the new traceability program could create needed transparency within the complex international seafood supply chain, reduce the risk of illegal products entering U.S. commerce and advance the sustainable seafood movement.”
A 2011 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization assessment found that 25 percent of 600 fish stocks monitored worldwide are overexploited, which can lead to population collapse. Another 52 percent are “fully exploited,” meaning any increase in fishing pressure could reduce their numbers to unsustainable levels.
These numbers matter as nations work together to conserve marine life in international waters. IUU fishing undermines those cooperative efforts, threatening the long-term sustainability of commercially important fisheries like crab, tuna and shrimp. One estimate puts the cost of IUU fishing to legitimate fishing fleets and to governments at $10 billion to $23.5 billion per year.
Statement of Margaret Spring, Vice President of Conservation and Science and Chief Conservation Officer, Monterey Bay Aquarium
“The Monterey Bay Aquarium is disappointed that nations at the 89th meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission were unable to reach agreement on any new measures to conserve Pacific bluefin tuna populations. Pacific bluefin tuna are key top predators in the ocean, but the population’s breeding stock has been depleted to approximately 4% of historic levels. As the population continues to decline, we need all Pacific nations to collaborate and commit to a science-based, long-term recovery plan that will result in a healthy, sustainable Pacific bluefin population.
“We applaud the United States’ leadership in advancing a proposal at last week’s meeting to support new scientific analyses and collaboration across international science advisory bodies that could improve future conservation and management decisions. We strongly support the United States’ effort to include a science-based recovery target, known as maximum sustainable yield, as an indication of what measures are needed to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of the species.
“Despite significant support from most Member nations, the Commission could not reach a consensus on the U.S. scientific analysis proposal, and unfortunately did not adopt any new measures.
“Now is the time for all nations fishing in the region to think beyond purely domestic concerns and commit to a Pacific-wide plan to reverse the decline of Pacific bluefin tuna in a meaningful, responsible and cooperative manner. This must start with a commitment to strictly adhere to scientific advice in establishing rebuilding targets. And it must include serious consideration of other conservation measures, such as protection for bluefin spawning areas.
“The next opportunity for action comes when the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meets in Japan at the end of August. We urge all parties to pledge their support for new international research investments, including electronic and emerging techniques for tagging and tracking bluefin tuna populations across the Pacific. This commitment is essential to strengthen conservation measures, and to advance a science-based, long-term rebuilding plan that will recover the species to sustainable levels.”