Climate change: A triple threat for the ocean

The ocean headlines these past few months have been unsettling. 

RW14-198 (1)
Now is the time for climate action. It’s not too late; we still have a choice about the kind of future we want to leave today’s children.

A just-released scientific report connects these and a host of other ocean changes with human activities that take place largely on land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate marks the first time that the IPCC has written a stand-alone report on the marine realm. It presents a detailed account of the increasingly severe consequences of climate change for the ocean, its trillions of creatures and, ultimately, ourselves. 

The report makes clear that to protect the ocean, we must first reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But we must also reduce ocean stress, caused by overfishing and pollution, so the ocean is healthy enough to weather the changes already underway.

“The bottom line is that we need the ocean. And right now, the ocean needs us,” said Julie Packard, executive director of the Aquarium. “It’s not too late to take courageous climate action and safeguard the ocean from further damage.” 

Continue reading Climate change: A triple threat for the ocean

For deep-ocean science, nothing beats being there

Today’s guest post on the importance of ocean science comes from Nancy Barr of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), our partner institution.

Creatures of the deep sea. Photo © MBARI

The casual observer of the ocean might notice day-to-day changes in the waves and currents, or in the water’s color or smell. But how do we know what is going on far below the surface, if we are not there to observe it?

One key focus of MBARI technology development is to create a “persistent presence”—being where changes are taking place, as they happen. It means placing instrumentation in the deep ocean for extended periods of time, instead of relying on the occasional research cruise to make observations and collect data.

Tracking seafloor movement

First Mate Paul Ban assists with the recovery of a tripod frame onto the R/V Rachel Carson, Photo by Roberto Gwiazda © MBARI 2017

Sediment moves from the continents into the deep sea both gradually, and in large bursts. This movement plays an important role in providing nutrition to deep-sea organisms. But it can also harm seafloor infrastructure, like underwater Internet cables—and it could possibly trigger geohazards like tsunamis.

MBARI engineers and scientists devised several instruments to record sediment-moving events as they happen. For the past two years, MBARI scientist Charlie Paull and an international research team have been monitoring movement in Monterey Canyon with a suite of instruments and sensors. The effort proved its worth in 2016, when the instruments detected a movement so strong, it swept a large volume of sediment down the canyon—carrying a one-ton steel tripod more than 3 miles down the canyon and burying it deep in the mud.

Continue reading For deep-ocean science, nothing beats being there

We’re lacing up for the March for Science

Try to imagine one morning without science. You’d have no cell phone alarm to wake you up; no clean running water for your shower; no electricity to power your coffee maker. No weather forecast to help you plan your day.

We have science to thank for so many of the benefits of modern life, from our medicines to our food supply to our smartphones. Science also holds the promise of addressing our planet’s most serious environmental challenges. Innovations in renewable energy and clean vehicles can slow the pace of climate change. Rigorous research can better equip us to address the growing problem of plastic pollution in our ocean.

Scientists with the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program release a rescued sea otter back into the wild.

At Monterey Bay Aquarium, science is at the core of our mission to inspire conservation of the ocean. That’s why we’re one of the first 100 partners in the national March for Science, a series of nearly 500 coordinated events across the United States and around the world on Saturday, April 22. Other partners include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), American Geophysical Union, Ecological Society of America, Society for Conservation Biology and Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The world is too interconnected, and the issues are too complex, to make decisions without the input of science,” says Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s science director.

Aquarist Jennifer O’Quin Anstey checks in on baby seahorses (Hippocampus ingens) in the Aquarium’s lab.

Over the next two weeks, on this blog and through our Twitter and Facebook feeds, we’ll share more about how science contributes to ocean health. We’ll highlight research that’s leading to exciting discoveries about ocean wildlife, and science-based programs transforming the market for sustainable seafood.

We’ll celebrate science education programs that empower young people from diverse backgrounds to become citizen scientists and the ocean conservation leaders of the future. We’ll highlight policy work in support of science-based decision-making, and breakthroughs in deep-sea exploration.

This Earth Day, April 22, the movement will go global as people from all walks of life come together to stand up for science. Advocates in Washington, D.C., will be joined by people at satellite marches on six continents, celebrating science—and their hope for our shared future—with one voice.

Find a March for Science near you.


Dispatch from the Farallones: White shark family portraits

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s white shark tagging team recently made its annual visit to the Farallon Islands outside San Francisco Bay. The goal: to continue its long-term efforts to monitor a genetically distinct population of adult white sharks, which gathers at the islands each fall to gorge on seals and sea lions.

 During the trip, team members took photos to identify individual sharks by their dorsal fin patterns, collected tissue samples for genetic research, and attached electronic tags to study these majestic ocean predators. Presley Adamson, associate producer and editor for the Aquarium’s film team, reports back on his experiences in the field.

Approaching the Farallones.

It’s been two hours since we lost sight of the Golden Gate Bridge and, with it, any sign of civilization. Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, senior research scientist for Monterey Bay Aquarium; and Scot Anderson, a pioneering white shark expert and seasonal researcher for the Aquarium, are somehow sleeping through the relentless rocking and rolling of our sailboat. I’m too excited to sleep.

Choppy waves have kept us stuck on shore for six straight days. Today, the waters are finally calm enough for us to cross the 25 miles of open ocean between San Francisco and the Farallon Islands.

The Farallones are technically part of the City of San Francisco, but we won’t find any subdivisions or grocery stores here. The islands, their surrounding waters, and their plant and animal inhabitants are protected in the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

A whale fluke surfaces near our sailboat as we near the Farallon Islands.

More elephant seals and sea lions than people visit the Farallones. The abundance of blubbery pinnipeds attracts some of the largest white sharks in the world, who hang around the islands looking for a meal.

Sal and Scot have brought me along to document this year’s research season. I’m armed with six cameras that need to be set up before we get to the Farallones. I also need to put on foul-weather gear—boots, life jacket, raincoat, and other gear to stay warm and dry. But I’m distracted by a pod of humpback whales next to our boat, showing off their giant flukes as they go about their own morning commute.

I can just start to make out a lone pinnacle emerging from the sea. We’re almost there.

Continue reading Dispatch from the Farallones: White shark family portraits

Sea otters and abalone: A special synergy

Decades of conservation work have brought southern sea otters back from near-extinction. This year, their numbers topped 3,000 for the first time since fur traders decimated the population in the 19th century. But as the animals move into new territory along the California Coast, they’re encountering another food source: endangered black abalone.

Fishing groups have worried that sea otters may keep abalone from rebounding—and dashing their chance of reopening a commercial abalone fishery in California. But last month, a paper published in the scientific journal Ecology found the recovery of sea otters doesn’t prevent the recovery of black abalone. In fact, the two species benefit one another.

It’s complicated

The paper, authored by University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Peter Raimondi with researchers from the University of California, Davis and the U.S. Geological Survey, investigated abalone populations in 12 places along the Central Coast—some with otters, some without.

Illustration of black abalone, Haliotis cracherodii. © Monterey Bay Aquarium

If otters were harming abalone populations, the researchers reasoned, there would be fewer abalone where there were more otters. Instead, the data showed exactly the opposite pattern: Where there are more otters, there are more abalone.

The result may not be intuitive, but that reflects the complexity of ocean ecosystems. Raimondi and his colleagues aren’t quite sure why otters and abalone benefit one another, but they have some ideas.

First, both species thrive in the same habitat: rich kelp forests over rocky bottoms. And second, while abalone are food for sea otters, otters may also provide food for abalone. Sea urchins, a staple of the otter diet, can wipe out kelp forests, leaving very little food for other animals.

By keeping urchin populations in check, otters improve the health of kelp forests, indirectly giving abalone more to eat.

A holistic approach

Foraging otter
A territorial male sea otter in Moss Landing uses his paws to forage for shore crabs in the pickleweed, leaving his eyes free to monitor his surroundings. Photo by Lilian Carswell/USFWS.

Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, isn’t surprised by the finding. “People are beginning to recognize that otters have a variety of effects that we hadn’t really appreciated,” she says.

Scientists have long suspected healthy abalone and otter populations might benefit one other. In 2012, David Jessup, former director of the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz, pointed out that otters and abalone coevolved as predator and prey over hundreds of thousands of years.

“It would be extremely disadvantageous to sea otter survival if they could drive abalone to rarity or extinction,” he wrote in a 2012 post on “It would be a remarkable evolutionary failure.”

The population decline that prompted officials to list black and white abalone under the Endangered Species Act in 1997 had nothing to do with sea otters, Jessup added. At that time, there were still too few otters in the wild to affect the abundance of abalone. Instead, a combination of overfishing and a fatal disease called withering syndrome caused abalone numbers to plummet.

Black abalone2
Abalone under water in rocky shore tidepool. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Kathleen Olson.

There’s been a long-term misunderstanding about abalone population levels, Carswell adds. In the early 20th century, she explains, California settlers found enormous piles of shellfish up and down the coast. They assumed this incredible abundance was the norm, and abalone fisheries sprang up to take advantage. But scientists now know the unusually high numbers of abalone and other shellfish were due to the absence of otters.

“The [abalone] baseline was already very skewed, totally out of whack, because otters had been removed,” Carswell says.

Andrew Johnson, the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation manager, says people enjoyed the abalone harvest for decades in the absence of sea otters. “It was unregulated, they overexploited it, and they got their benefit from it,” he says. “But now things are coming into a better balance.”

A perfect pairing

In the long term, Raimondi’s paper suggests, both abalones and otters can thrive along the California coast.

Relationships between animals are complex, and ecosystem management works best when scientists and managers take multiple species into account. In contrast to the old idea that otters reduce abalone numbers, Raimondi’s study suggests an important synergy between the two species.

As sea otters recolonize their historical range, they improve ecosystem health. Johnson hopes the paper will inspire productive conversations, helping abalones and sea otters recover together.

-Diana LaScala-Gruenewald

Learn more about our sea otter conservation research.