What began as research into historical data on rare hawksbill sea turtles could help illuminate the shadowy modern world of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances. The study also revealed that a dramatically larger number of the critically endangered turtles were killed for the tortoiseshell trade, six times higher than earlier estimates.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Imagine you’re trying to eat a snack—a tasty sustainable fish taco, let’s say. But there’s no plate, no cutlery, and you can’t use your hands. Also, gravity is muted, so the taco has a frustrating tendency to float away between bites.
If this sounds difficult, you’re beginning to understand the challenge of being a hungry sea turtle, stuck with awkward flippers more useful for moving around than for grasping prey.
Still, sea turtles make do with what they have. And, as it turns out, they can (and do) use their forelimbs to corral, swipe and hold food.
“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.
People have some pretty diverse perspectives on raising kids—from the hands-on “helicopter” approach to the hands-off “free-range” style.
In the ocean, the parenting spectrum is even more extreme. Evolution has formed wildly different strategies for plants and animals to create future generations.
The ocean’s helicopter parents are marine mammals, such as orcas and whales. They give birth to one or two calves a year and invest heavily in each one’s survival. Mother orcas give their babies milk and teach them to hunt; the pod provides social connections and protects against predators.
Other animals, such as sea turtles, are hard-core free-range parents—leaving their offspring to fend for themselves from the start.
A Pacific leatherback turtle in Monterey Bay breaks the surface about every two hours, taking a deep breath of air before going back under to hunt for jellyfish. Leatherbacks use their powerful flippers to propel themselves forward and grab a gelatinous mouthful.
Only it might not be a jellyfish.
It might be a plastic bag, perhaps one of the 13 billion disposable grocery bags that Californians use each year. Scientists are finding single-use bags, cosmetic microbeads and other types of plastic litter throughout the ocean, even in the deepest submarine canyons. Globally, an estimated 8 million metric tons reach the ocean every year.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, persisting in the environment. That makes plastic pollution a major threat to marine ecosystems—and sea turtles are among the most vulnerable ocean animals.
“The enormity of the problem, the scale of the pollution and the vast impact have only really been appreciated in the last decade,” says Kyle Van Houtan, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s director of science. “Sea turtles are good indicators of the challenges the ocean faces right now.”
For the past six years, he has led several initiatives in global change and protected species from the director’s office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Hawai’i. His research and teaching focus on multi-faceted approaches to marine biodiversity conservation, and his work spans a range of topics from animal behavior, foraging ecology and physiology, to fisheries stock assessments, climate change and ecosystem-based management.
His latest research paper uses bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to aid in the conservation of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles. He has also spoken and written widely about issues of environmental policy and ethics.
Dr. Van Houtan earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, a master of science from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Duke University, where he serves as an adjunct associate professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment.
A passionate science and conservation communicator, his research has been featured on National Public Radio, in the New York Times, Nature, Science, National Geographic, WIRED andSmithsonian. He is also a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama for his pioneering research into how climate influences sea turtle populations.
When he received the award, NOAA Fisheries Chief Science Advisor Richard Merrick, noted that Dr. Van Houtan “has shown how a deep understanding of biology, ecology, and climate science can provide answers to the important question of how climate change can affect animal populations over decades and vast geographies.”
“We are fortunate to have Kyle Van Houtan as our director of science,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science, and chief conservation officer for the aquarium. “He brings new perspectives to our work on behalf of iconic ocean wildlife at a time when marine ecosystems face unprecedented challenges from climate change and ocean acidification.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium commends the State of Louisiana for acting to improve the sustainability of its shrimp fishery and helping protect sea turtles. Newly enacted legislation enables state wildlife officials to enforce federal rules that require shrimp fishermen to outfit their otter trawl nets with escape hatches for sea turtles (known as Turtle Excluder Devices or TEDs). The new law officially ends a ban on state enforcement of this important ocean conservation measure – a ban that has been in place since 1987.
Sea turtles found in U.S. waters are considered endangered or threatened, and TEDs help prevent the animals from being accidentally caught and killed as bycatch in shrimp nets. Louisiana law previously prohibited enforcement of this critical measure, putting sea turtles at risk.
“Louisiana now joins all other Gulf fisheries – from the Carolinas to Texas – where use of Turtle Excluder Devices has been effective in reducing impacts on sea turtles,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science for the Aquarium. “Conscientious shrimp fishermen in Louisiana who have been using TEDs will now be recognized and rewarded in the same manner as their peers in other states for contributing to sea turtle recovery.”
“We congratulate the State of Louisiana for supporting compliance with strong federal management policies that require TEDs,” she added.
Because of the state’s enforcement ban, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program had been unable to recommend Louisiana shrimp – even when fisherman voluntarily complied with federal regulations.
In light of the state’s action, Seafood Watch will immediately reevaluate its assessment of the Louisiana shrimp fishery. The new assessment is likely to result in all U.S. shrimp caught by otter trawl in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic being considered a “Good Alternative” option for seafood lovers.
Repeal of the TED enforcement ban was supported by Louisiana’s industry-led Shrimp Task Force, and was passed unanimously by both houses of the state legislature.
May 15 marks the 10th anniversary of Endangered Species Day. At the aquarium, we’ve worked every day for the past 30 years to save wildlife from extinction.
It’s the focus of many of our efforts – from our living exhibits, to the research we conduct here and in the wild, to our work to shape public policy in ways that protect ocean habitats and wildlife.
Seafood Watch, too, contributes to wildlife protection by giving individuals and businesses tools so they can choose seafood that’s caught or farmed in ways that protect ocean ecosystems.
We’re not alone in our efforts. We’re part of a 229-member conservation organization – the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – whose members are making a difference for wildlife around the world.
Collective action for conservation
Today, we’re stepping up in an even bigger way through a new initiative called AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction. We’re combining the collective power of our 180 million annual visitors with our resources and expertise to save animals from extinction.
For decades, we and our AZA colleagues have been conservation leaders so the world will preserve its incredible wildlife. At the aquarium, we’re actively working to understand and protect sea otters, sharks and bluefin tuna. We rescue and release wildlife including Western snowy plovers and stranded sea turtles. We’re working for the recovery of steelhead trout in California. And we raise corals that we share with other aquariums, to reduce the need to collect from the wild.
We’re the wildlife experts
Among conservation organizations, no one has more animals, scientists or access to the public than AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos. In addition to the visitors we reach, we have the largest group of life scientists working for species preservation. And we have the largest living wildlife collection – more than 75,000 animals representing over 6,000 species, including 1,000 endangered species.
Collectively, we spend $160 million each year on conservation projects and programs.
Through AZA SAFE, accredited aquariums and zoos will build on a legacy that began more than a century ago, when zoos brought the American bison back from the brink. In the future, we’ll do more. We’ll convene scientists and stakeholders globally to identify key factors threatening species, develop Conservation Action Plans and engage the public to help us make a difference. You can follow the latest developments via social media by using the hashtag #savingspecies.
A 10-year plan for saving species
In 2015, SAFE will focus on 10 endangered species, adding an additional 10 species each year for the next decade. The inaugural 10 species include several you can see in Monterey: African blackfooted penguins, sharks, Western pond turtles and sea turtles. Our next special exhibition, featuring marine life of Baja and the Gulf of California, is home to the critically endangered vaquita porpoise – another species that SAFE will work to recover.
How can you help? Every time you visit, you support our work to save animals from extinction. Our members are our partners in everything we do to assure a future with healthy oceans and abundant ocean wildlife.
When you stay in touch, as a member and through our social media accounts, we’ll let you know when you can take action to make a difference. And we’ll celebrate our progress – because, with your help, we are making progress!