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.

Flippers, not fingers: Sea turtles’ surprising feeding strategies

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.

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

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.

Their behavior is the subject of a new publication by Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers Jessica Fujii and Dr. Kyle Van Houtan. It’s something that’s been noted in passing in scientific literature, but Jessica and Kyle say it’s a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of ocean creatures. Read more…

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.

Read more…

Think your parents are tough? Try being a sea turtle

People have some pretty diverse perspectives on raising kids—from the hands-on “helicopter” approach to the hands-off “free-range” style.

JimCapwell_073
A pod of orcas in Monterey Bay show “helicopter parenting” in action. ©Jim Capwell/www.divecentral.com

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.

Read more…

For sea turtles, a diet worse than junk food

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.

Leatherback hatchlings_Jeroen Looye_flickrCC
Mabibi – LEATHERBACK TURTLE” by Jeroen Looyé is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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.”

Read more…

Meet our new director of science: Dr. Kyle Van Houtan

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, a conservation ecologist with expertise in marine biodiversity and global change, has been named director of science at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan
Dr. Kyle Van Houtan

In his new position, Dr. Van Houtan will manage, coordinate and strengthen our science programs and partnerships. This includes conservation research focused on sea otters, great white sharksPacific bluefin tuna and other iconic California Current species and ecosystems.

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 work includes studies using bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to help in sea turtle conservation.
His work includes studies using bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to help in sea turtle conservation.

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.”

Learn more about our Conservation Research initiatives.

Louisiana steps up for sea turtles, sustainable seafood

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.

Fresh-Gulf-shrimp
Fresh shrimp ready for sorting. Seafood Watch is reassessing the sustainability of Louisiana shrimp caught by otter trawl now that a new law permits state enforcement of Turtle Excluder Devices. Courtesy Gulf Seafood Institute.

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.

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