Conservation & Science

Marching ahead with ocean conservation science

For nearly 34 years, Monterey Bay Aquarium has harnessed the power of science to guide every aspect of our work—exhibit development, public policy and outreach, sustainable seafood solutions, research and education programs. In 2017, the Aquarium became one of the first 100 partners to support the first March for Science as a way to share our dedication to the scientific process. As the 2018 March for Science ramps up on April 14, we thought we’d revisit some of our greatest moments in marine conservation science over the last year. In these, and many other ways, we’re harnessing the power of science to make our world a better place.

Dynamic tuna dorsal fins

Researchers discovered Pacific bluefin tuna can move their dorsal fins with an internal hydraulic mechanism that aids in fast swimming and quick turns

While observing Pacific bluefin tuna inside the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC), scientists noticed something…fishy about the way they were swimming. TRCC scientists logged hours of video footage and, after conducting routine medical exams, discovered that the dorsal fins of tunas move both forward and backward as they swim—especially when they hunt for prey in quick flashes of speed. Their work, reported in a cover article published in Science magazine, documented that the team of scientists discovered a hydraulic mechanism that allows a tuna to articulate its dorsal fin along a range of angles depending on which behavior the tuna exhibits.

Sea turtles use flippers like fingers

Sea turtles use their flippers in a multitude of ways to help them capture prey, like this green turtle in the Gulf of Thailand that’s grasping a jelly before it eats. Photo © Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com

When evolution, animal behavior and body form meet in one elegant space, we call it “ecomorphology,” an area of expertise for Aquarium senior research biologist Jessica Fujii, who for years has studied how and why sea otters use tools. But when Jessica and her colleagues observed that sea turtles use their flippers like tools to swipe, slice and corral their food, we might call that “evolutionary serendipity”—something that sea turtles did not necessarily evolve to do, but do anyway. In a recent study published in PeerJ and led by Jessica, we learned that sea turtles use their flippers, largely designed for locomotion, to manipulate their prey. The scientists tapped crowdsourced images and videos from around the world to document turtles prying open scallops and karate-chopping jellyfish, confirming that this ancient marine reptile need not have a frontal cortex to perform such complex maneuvers. Because transparency is a key tenet of scientific inquiry, our team decided to make both the paper and the peer reviews of the paper available free to anyone with internet access.

Museum feathers reveal seabird diet changes

Some of the feathers in the study were from seabirds collected in the 19th century by groups like this 1885 party that landed in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The specimens are archived at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. Photo courtesy Bishop Museum.

Naturalists hiking around the islands of Hawaii in 1890 could never have guessed that the seabird feathers they collected would someday be used to help tell the story of a changing ocean. But for Aquarium researcher Tyler Gagne, lead author on a new study of how seabird diets have changed over the last 130 years, the feathers played a vital role in reconstructing what seabirds have—and have not—been eating. Using stable isotope analysis, Tyler and his team traced specific chemical signatures found in the preserved seabird feathers to show how, over time, eight different species in the North Pacific have shifted from fish to squid, a transition that suggests both human and climate impacts are influencing their dietary choices.

The data behind sea otter rescues

White shark bites are causing the majority of sea otter deaths at the edges of the otters’ range. Photo courtesy MBAPhoto © Nicole LaRoche, U.S. Geological Survey

For more than 30 years, sea otter researchers and animal care specialists at the Aquarium have been tagging, tracking, rescuing and rehabilitating stranded adult sea otters and pups. The data collected from 725 live strandings between 1984 and 2015 provide an intricate portrait of major threats California sea otters face as their population slowly recovers. Aquarium researchers determined that the absence of significant kelp canopy coverage at the peripheries of the sea otter range, especially in waters north of Santa Cruz and south toward Point Conception, can inhibit sea otters’ ability to reproduce and survive. Without sufficient kelp  cover, sea otters, especially reproductive females and their pups, can be left vulnerable to shark bites.

Young white sharks: the wonder years

Juvenile white shark swims at the surface of Bahia Sebastian Vizcaino. Photo courtesy CICESE.

After years of studying the underwater lives of white sharks, Aquarium researchers and their partners in the United States and Mexico noticed some missing links in the life history of these apex predators. Where do white sharks give birth, and where do their pups grow up? Thanks to a study published in Fisheries Research, scientists discovered that Bahia Sebastián Vizcaino, a warm lagoon on the coast of Baja California, is a nursery for newborn white sharks. This study formalized a de facto understanding that southern California was the place to find young white sharks, but researchers validated a more surprising fact about juvenile white sharks: they don’t stay in Californian waters and they regularly travel to Mexican waters and back again.

These are just a few highlights reflecting the growing scope of ocean science taking place at the Aquarium. We’ll continue to conduct new science every day, to inspire new generations of science-literate citizens, and to use the best-available science to inform everything we do to assure a bright future for our ocean planet.

—Athena Copenhaver

Learn how we use science to support ocean policy, address plastic pollution and climate change, protect marine wildlife and ecosystems, and promote sustainable global fisheries and aquaculture.

‘Historic moment’: Nations act to save Pacific bluefin tuna

Today in Busan, South Korea, Pacific nations came together and agreed, for the first time, to recover the population of Pacific bluefin tuna to a sustainable level.

Bluefin tuna at auction in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market. Japan consumes 90 percent of the world;s catch of bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy Associated Press.

“This is a historic moment for this remarkable species, which is so important to the ocean ecosystem and to coastal communities around the Pacific Rim,” said Margaret Spring, Chief Conservation Officer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

At the annual meeting of the Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission—the body responsible for managing tunas and other highly migratory species across the western Pacific Ocean—international delegates discussed ways to recover the population of Pacific bluefin tuna after years of decline. Ultimately, they took a major step forward by agreeing to recover the population to a sustainable level and establishing a long-term management plan.

Read more…

Chefs worldwide speak out to save Pacific bluefin tuna

Leading chefs on five continents have pledged to keep Pacific bluefin tuna off their menus until there’s effective international action to manage the fishery and reverse a precipitous decline in the population.

Chef Alex Atala of Brazil: “We are not living within our means when it comes to Pacific bluefin tuna.”

Nearly 200 prominent chefs and culinary leaders from around the world—including Alex Atala of Brazil, James Beard Award nominee Michael Cimarusti of the United States and Annabel Langbein of New Zealand—say Pacific Rim nations must act immediately to recover Pacific bluefin tuna.

Bluefin tunas are among the planet’s most iconic and prized fish. In recent decades, global demand for Pacific bluefin tuna has driven the population down to a critical level—just 2.6 percent of its historic abundance, significantly lower than those of the two other bluefin tuna species, Atlantic and Southern bluefin tunas, and lower than all other assessed tuna species.

The chef pledge comes as fishing nations charged with securing the future of Pacific bluefin tuna prepare to meet in Busan, South Korea from August 28 to September 1, to craft a new recovery plan in the face of growing international criticism that the current plan falls far short of what’s needed.

Read more…

Playing your part through citizen science

On Earth Day,  Monterey Bay Aquarium staff and volunteers joined in March for Science events along with tens of thousands of people in more than 600 cities around the world. With representatives at marches in seven cities across the U.S. and Europe, the Aquarium stood up for one of our founding principles: that evidence-based science should drive conservation action.

From recording and sharing wildlife observations to reporting stranded sea otters, there are many ways to contribute as a citizen scientist.

It’s clear that the March for Science isn’t just about scientists, and it’s more than a one-day phenomenon. People of all ages and backgrounds participated, because you don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate the benefits science offers—or to contribute to the scientific process.

Much of the science taking place at the Aquarium, from saving sea otters to tracking white sharks, relies on dedicated citizens quite literally taking science into their own hands. Thanks to our increasingly connected society, opportunities abound for everyone from middle school students to retired teachers to participate in citizen science at the Aquarium—and beyond. Here are a few of the many ways you can become a citizen scientist. Read more…

Using science to save ocean wildlife

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a science-driven organization, and rigorous science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. Much of our research centers on marine life that visitors can also see in our exhibits – from sea otters to sharks and tunas, even our giant kelp forest. Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the past 30-plus years that is contributing to conservation of key ocean species and ecosystems.

A sea otter works to crack a mussel shell open on a rock off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Photo by Jessica Fujii

Sea otters crack open tool-use secrets

Revolutionary female scientist Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimps use tools and live within complex social systems. Our team of female researchers are walking in Jane’s footsteps with their recent studies on use of tools by another mammal: the sea otter. When observing sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula, sometimes we can hear a “crack, crack, crack!” above the roar of the tide. That sound comes from sea otters using rocks and other tools to open prey items, such as crabs or bivalves, as they float on their backs. Sea otters are avid tool users, but until recently not much was known about how sea otters choose their tools, what aspects of their environments influence tool use, or whether they teach tool use to other otters. The Aquarium’s decades of research into sea otter behavior provided years of observations of sea otter foraging and tool-use behavior, including sea otter pups pounding empty fists against their chests. Could such activity be instinctual? Research Biologist Jessica Fujii has devoted much of her young career to studying the frequency and types of tools used and whether tool use can be coded in sea otter genes. Jessica is looking ahead to see how sea otters learn, teach, and eventually master tool use in the wild.

A sea otter rests in an eelgrass bed in Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Sea otters contribute to the recovery of eelgrass and ecosystem health in this vital wetland on Monterey Bay. Photo by Ron Eby.

Sea otter surrogacy helps restore Elkhorn Slough

With 15 years of experience rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing surrogate-reared sea otters into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Moss Landing, California, the sea otter research team at the Aquarium began to wonder how and if their work was affecting the otter population there. Does releasing a few animals into the slough each year really make any difference? After crunching some serious numbers from the surrogacy program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) annual sea otter census, the researchers discovered that it did. Nearly 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in Elkhorn Slough today are there as a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program. While we’d known that sea otters served as ecosystem engineers for the giant kelp forests in Monterey Bay, we have now documented that sea otters in Elkhorn Slough are restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary. This gives us further insights into how sea otters may contribute to coastal ecosystem resilience. Read more…

Building bridges across an ocean to save a species

From a human perspective, the ocean is mind-bogglingly vast, deep and mysterious. Many of us live along the coast, or visit it on vacation, but few have experienced the high seas. We may not think much about marine life until it’s on our plates.

ed-kenney
Chef Ed Kenney

But this week Ed Kenney, a Hawaii-based celebrity chef and a member of the Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, called on people to rethink our appetite for one particular fish: Pacific bluefin tuna. These huge, fast predators, which migrate thousands of miles across the Earth’s largest ocean, are now down to less than 3 percent of their historical abundance due to overfishing.

“We chefs must take Pacific bluefin off our menus now, and give these powerful fish a chance to rebound,” Kenney writes on the National Geographic Ocean Views blog.

The Aquarium shares his concerns. For years, our scientists have been working to unravel the mysteries of the fish itself, by studying live bluefin in the lab, keeping them in our Open Sea exhibit, and tracking them in the wild.

We’ve learned a lot about the movement of Pacific bluefin by tagging more than 1,400 fish off the coast of California. But, mysteriously, not one of these individuals has made it back across the Pacific to spawn in the Sea of Japan.

Read more…

Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Bluefin karaoke

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna—particularly Pacific bluefin, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this summer we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This is the fourth and final dispatch in his series.


Last night got a little wild.  We haven’t seen a bluefin tuna in nine days, and we’re all starting to go a little stir-crazy. That night over dinner, we have beverages. Fine Japanese beverages. And after dinner? More beverages. Lo and behold, the restaurant owner pulled out the karaoke machine.

Estess_Karaoke_Japan
Student Kota Sebe lays down a high-energy karaoke performance.

I was first to the microphone with a reliable jam, “Under Pressure” by the late David Bowie and Queen. I didn’t realize the karaoke machines here have a complex vocal analysis system that scores your performance. Let’s just say I didn’t go platinum. (Definitely a problem with that karaoke software.)

It was Dr. Ko Fujioka who put on the winning performance of the night: a classic Japanese pop song from the ’80s. Fujioka-san rocked it, getting a high score of 91.7 points, the third-highest in the restaurant’s history.  People were dancing and cheering—karaoke is a big deal here.

Then researcher Mitsuake Sato got up and sang a powerful love ballad, replacing the female subject’s name with maguro (Japanese for “bluefin”). In tears from laughing, we went to bed, glad to have vented our Bluefin Blues in some way.

Read more…

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