Conservation & Science

A time machine to understand ocean health

For scientists seeking to understand how the ocean is changing, perhaps the ideal research instrument would be a time machine. Absent such technology, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been working to create the next best thing. It’s a new facility called the Ocean Memory Laboratory.

The white-tailed tropic bird was one of eight species from the North Pacific included in the Ocean Memory Lab study. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For the lab’s inaugural project, researchers have put together a dataset of the feeding habits of eight species of seabirds over the span of almost 130 years. They analyzed archived feathers dating as far back as 1890, using a technique called compound-specific stable isotope analysis, to better understand how the birds’ diets shifted in response to factors ranging from competition with humans to the changing climate.

“In the grand scheme of things, in our field of science, even 10 years of data is encouraging,” says Tyler Gagne, an assistant research scientist at the Aquarium and lead author of the new study, published February 14 in Science Advances. “This is a 130-year-long dataset, which is really amazing.”

Data, data everywhere

The study exemplifies the promise of the Ocean Memory Lab—the brainchild of Aquarium science director Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, who co-authored the publication together with two colleagues based in Hawaii, Dr. David Hyrenbach of Hawaii Pacific University and Molly E. Hagemann of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan conceived the Ocean Memory Lab as a way to learn about past ocean conditions and inform current conservation policy.

Identifying novel sources of long-term data is at the heart of the lab’s mission, Kyle says, because conservation projects often lack an informed baseline of ecosystem health to compare against.

“What are the conservation targets? What are we managing for? How do we know when we’re done?” he asks. “We often don’t have enough data or a sufficiently long-term record to provide informed answers to those questions.”

The solution, as Kyle sees it, may lie within the creatures themselves—or more precisely, in the chemistry of their tissues, which can record what they were eating, as well as clues about the surrounding ocean. Read more…

We’re responding to the Refugio oil spill

Two weeks after a pipeline spilled more than 20,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean near Santa Barbara, oiled wildlife continues to show up on southern California beaches. Now, the Aquarium has dispatched a team of specialists to help care for rescued seabirds, in collaboration with California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Other zoo and aquarium colleagues in California have also responded.

Nearly 200 seabirds and marine mammals have been affected thus far, and about half have survived, according to state wildlife officials.

It’s not the first time the Aquarium has stepped up to care for oiled marine animals in the wake of oil spills. In 1989, we helped rescue and care for sea otters in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Prince William Sound. More than 25 years later, that spill continues to affect the health of the marine environment.

Map showing areas of Gaviota coast affected by oil spill
Map showing areas of Gaviota coast affected by oil spill

While the recent Refugio spill in the Santa Barbara Channel is – fortunately – a relatively small one, it nonetheless carries environmental costs. Oil has been observed in four marine protected areas that are vital feeding and breeding grounds for fish, marine mammals and birds. Two state beaches remain closed until further notice. Commercial fishermen are shut out of 138 square miles of prime waters.

“Incidents like this are unfortunate reminders that offshore oil and gas operations in California pose an ongoing threat to valuable ocean and coastal ecosystems that we’ve worked so hard to protect,” says Aimee David, the Aquarium’s director of ocean conservation policy. “It should be a priority to remove as many of these facilities as soon as possible, and do so in a way that is based on sound science, meets strict state and federal environmental standards, and bolsters funding for marine protection and conservation efforts.”

For the short term, the Aquarium will be working in Santa Barbara to help oiled seabirds recover from the spill. Over the long haul, we’ll be active in Sacramento in support of policies to protect California’s vibrant ocean ecosystems from oil spills and other threats.

Learn more about our Conservation & Science programs

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