Conservation & Science

Designing an animal-friendly fin tag

For over two decades, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have partnered to study some of the world’s most mysterious ocean predators at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC). Some of the latest work to come from the TRCC include an innovative tuna tag design, and a paper recently published in the journal Science detailing the discovery of a hydraulic mechanism in tuna dorsal fins, which helps them swim with speed and precision.


In his office at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, Dr. Vadim Pavlov holds a pale, sleeve-like device. Its smooth lines and soft edges make it seem more like a child’s toy than a high-tech scientific product. He slips the device over a model of a dolphin dorsal fin and “swims” it around his office, mimicking a dolphin’s movements as it leaps and twists out of the water.

The device is a prototype of a new tag design intended to track top ocean predators, such as sharks and tunas, without using pins and bolts that penetrate the fin.

“Even when the dolphin leaps, the tag stays on,” Vadim says. “But, how did we do it?”

Form and function

Vadim is one of the world’s top experts in biomimetics: the science of translating natural phenomena, such as the flow of water over a dolphin’s dorsal fin, into useful technology.

For years, he’s been tackling the challenge of tagging and tracking wildlife in the open ocean. He wanted to provide “animal-friendly” tags as an alternative to the invasive bolt tags anchored into the fins of apex marine predators such as sharks, dolphins and tunas. For Vadim, that’s not just a scientific goal; it’s personal, inspired by his experience as a free diver. “I don’t like swimming with lots of gear, so I don’t think [animals] do either,” he says. “They are very sensitive to anything on their bodies.”

Fin flow
A traditional tag can cause drag on an animal as it swims through the water.

Traditional bolt tags, a key tool in marine animal field studies for the last half century, are kind of like an ear piercing. Researchers punch through the cartilage and collagen in the dorsal fin and attach tags that can help track the animals, or collect environmental data such as salinity, temperature, and depth.

“But over time, these bolt tags do not move with the animals,” Vadim explains. “They can alter the flow of water around the animal’s bodies, and can even cause animals to turn more in one direction over time,” he says. “The faster the animal swims, the greater the energy needed to override the drag.”

Smaller animals, such as harbor porpoises and juvenile dolphins and sharks, are especially susceptible to the pitfalls of traditional bolt tags. “There’s a conflict between the animal’s biology and the technological requirements of the tag,” says Vadim. “So my job became how to reconcile that disconnect.” Read more…

Re-writing the future for coral reefs

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Today’s guest post, focused on the important role of coral reefs, comes from Kristen Weiss of the Center for Ocean Solutions—a partnership between Stanford Woods Insititute for the Environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.


“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” -Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

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A toadstool leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Coral reefs have suffered from an intense global bleaching event that began in 2014, threatening more than 40% of the world’s corals and sparking environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen to write a controversial “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef.” Global warming, plus last year’s El Niño event, are the key culprits in this mass bleaching.

Closer to home, reef habitats from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico have also been hard hit. Fortunately, despite this widespread devastation, there are still regions where at least some coral species have survived bleaching—in other words, where coral reefs are mostly dead, but still slightly alive. According to many coral biologists, that makes all the difference.

“In every bleaching event, there are survivors,” explains Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Corals sitting right next to a bleached one that are not themselves bleached. Why? Do those corals just have the right genes? The right algal symbiont? The right micro-habitat? And do they give rise to the next generation of growing corals?”

Read more…

The spooky science of shark mummies

John O’Sullivan, the Aquarium’s Director of Collections, was in Mexico on a mission. A young white shark equipped with an electronic tag had traveled over 650 nautical miles south from its release point in Monterey Bay, and the tag had popped off somewhere along the central coast of Baja California. The tag contained a complete data set documenting the shark’s movements and physiology since its release, and John aimed to recover it.

Instead his guide, a local fisherman, led John to a shark graveyard.

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Location of shark dump site in Baja California, Mexico.

A grisly grimace

Sometimes, commercial and sport fishermen accidentally ensnare juvenile white sharks off the coasts of California and Mexico. But locals in some communities consider it bad luck to discard the unmarketable parts, such as the heads, back into the ocean. Instead, they deposit these shark parts at dump sites in the Mexican desert.

In central Baja, just north of Guerrero Negro, John and a team of local Mexicans encountered hundreds of shark heads, in various stages of decay. Some were fresh; others were rotting. Some had skin that was dry and well-preserved—in other words, mummified—in this arid location.

Many of us would turn away from that gruesome sight. But John and his colleagues looked into the mouths of the shark-head mummies and saw an opportunity.

Read more…

Seawater sleuthing with eDNA

Every living thing is constantly shedding fragments of itself into the environment. Police detectives take advantage of this at a crime scene when they search for hair, skin or saliva—all of which contain DNA, a full genome of information unique to their owner.

Fishes, sharks and other marine organisms shed their DNA, too. In every cup of seawater, there are sloughed-off cells and waste from the animals that have swum, drifted or floated there.

This DNA from the environment is called eDNA. Over the past few years, scientists at the Center for Ocean Solutions (COS)— a partnership among the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Stanford University—have investigated how scientists, conservationists and resource managers can use eDNA to gain critical information about marine ecosystems, more quickly and more cheaply than ever before.

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.

Julie Packard: Shaping a bright future for bluefin tunas

From Jan. 18-20, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University are convening the world’s leading bluefin tuna researchers, policymakers and stakeholders for the Bluefin Futures Symposium in Monterey. Using the power of its global expertise and diverse perspectives, the group is exploring opportunities for international collaboration. Together, the participants are working to create a roadmap toward healthy and sustainable wild bluefin tuna populations across the world’s ocean. Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard shared these thoughts to open the symposium.


 

All of us at this important gathering are here because we have a stake in the future of these remarkable fish — whether bluefin tunas are an important part of your country’s culture; as economic opportunity for your communities and nations; or as vital components of a thriving, healthy ocean. Since opening, the Aquarium has helped inspire a transformation in public understanding of the sea, and its role in our future.  We know now that living and healthy ocean ecosystems are critical to enabling life on Earth to exist. Their future will determine our future — and in fact, our very survival.

Executive Director Julie Packard. Photo courtesy Motofumi Tai.
Executive Director Julie Packard. Photo courtesy Motofumi Tai.

We depend on the ocean in so many ways. It’s our pantry, our lungs, our playground, a massive driver of global commerce, a storehouse for innovation to meet human needs, and a source of inspiration and joy. And, we now know that the ocean is changing. Overfishing, pollution and habitat change — from the coast to the deep sea — have escalated at a dangerous pace. And the vast impacts of carbon pollution, from rising sea levels to acidifying waters, are no longer hypothetical. They’re here now, from Miami to Mumbai.

Today, here on the coast of the continent, at this moment in time, we are in fact, both literally and figuratively, on the edge. We’ve accomplished an amazing array of effective models for ocean governance and conservation, and there’s lots to celebrate. But we’ve got to step up our pace.  The collective action of everyone in this room, whatever we decide to do in the next few years, will shape the future for critical species like bluefin tunas.

Examples of success

The good news is that I’m confident we can turn the tide — by investing in people and ideas to demonstrate solutions, and to do the hard work required to reach agreement on a path forward.  Why do I think this? Because we have examples right in front of us.

Just one month ago, leaders from around the world gathered in Paris to tackle another, seemingly insurmountable challenge: to put the world on a path to a clean energy future that will spare us from the devastating consequences of unchecked global climate change. Faced with the gravity of the threat, the delegates to COP 21 were able to overcome their disagreements and their differences. They crafted an accord that puts our planet on course to a sustainable future — for people, and for the living ecosystems on which our survival depends.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium occupies the site of a former sardine cannery.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium occupies the site of a former sardine cannery.

They didn’t solve the problem in one series of meetings, but  the COP 21 negotiations mark a turning point on climate change. We have the opportunity, in the next three days, to mark a similar turning point for the future of bluefin tunas. And there is no better place on Earth for this to happen than here in Monterey, California.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium stands  on the site of what was once the largest sardine cannery on Cannery Row — an industrial district that was home to the largest fish-packing operations on the planet until the sardine fishery collapsed because of a combination of mismanagement and ecosystem change.

From exploitation to recovery

Sardines weren’t the only ocean life targeted by humans. People hunted sea otters, sea lions and elephant seals to near extinction right off our shore. Once-thriving whale populations were decimated as their blubber was turned into oil to light our homes. With the loss of sea otters, kelp forests disappeared — in turn affecting habitats for other commercially valuable fish, and altering the very structure of the ecosystem here.

When the Aquarium opened, Monterey Bay was already recovering. How did that happen?

A humpback whale breaches in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy Jim Capwell.
A humpback whale breaches in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy Jim Capwell.

Because people took action to protect and recover wildlife and ecosystems. It started in 1911, with the International Fur Seal Treaty that outlawed commercial hunting of seals, sea lions and sea otters in the North Pacific. Decades later, a devastating oil spill just south of here, in Santa Barbara, triggered a flood of environmental protection legislation in the United States: The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, and many more. In the 1970s, as these laws were being enacted here in the U.S., countries around the world began to focus more attention on conservation of our ocean resources, including the creation of The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and measures to protect marine mammals. And the wildlife here in California’s coastal ocean began to recover.

Today, when you look out on Monterey Bay, you’ll see the surface waters of one of the largest national marine sanctuaries in the United States. California, in the past decade, created the largest statewide network of marine protected areas anywhere in our nation. And U.S law now mandates science-based catch limits and rebuilding of fish stocks. Our local fisheries are coming back, along with the fishing fleets that rely on healthy fish populations to make a living and to feed our people.

Public inspiration — and scientific rigor

The Aquarium has been a big part of that story because we are more than simply a place for people to come and see living ocean exhibits. Founded by marine biologists, the Aquarium has always had a larger mission: To inspire conservation of the ocean.

Chuck Farwell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Barbara Block of Stanford University tag a Pacific bluefin tuna for the study. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.
Chuck Farwell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Barbara Block of Stanford University tag a Pacific bluefin tuna. Photo courtesy Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

Today, we are not only the most innovative and admired public aquarium in the nation. We are also a leader in ocean science — notably in our two decades of research at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center. There, with our partners at Stanford, we have been doing some of the most advanced and innovative science in support of bluefin recovery. We’ve tagged and tracked bluefin tunas in the Atlantic and Pacific — developing an unprecedented body of basic science to inform management of these fish. Because we can keep bluefin and yellowfin tunas in our Open Sea exhibit and in holding tanks at the TRCC, we have also generated information about tuna physiology and biomechanics that is unique in the world. More than 200 scientific papers have come out of the work at the TRCC — with more to come.

Our goal is to share our data in scientific journals and with the modelers, managers and stakeholders who will determine the future of bluefin tunas. We know that developing the science, and adhering strictly to science-based advice in managing these fish, is the key to recovery of their stocks. Put simply, in looking at the health of fisheries around the world, one thing is clear. Well-managed fisheries all have a common ingredient: good scientific data. Where data are poor, it is impossible to establish catch levels that are sustainable in the long term.

Working across ocean basins

We’re working here in the U.S. and internationally to ensure that management decisions are informed by the best available science, and that we share a common vision of sustainability. But this is only possible when we share information with one another, in forums like this. We’re working toward the kind of recovery for bluefin tunas that we’ve seen for other animals and ecosystems here in Monterey Bay, and in California’s coastal waters. But we know that it is much more challenging to orchestrate recovery with species that migrate across political and management boundaries.

We also know that business leadership and engagement are essential to solve the challenges we face. Indeed, the Aquarium was created through collaboration between a technology business leader and conservation scientists.

Monterey Bay Aquarium business partners are making time-bound commitments to source seafood sustainably.
Monterey Bay Aquarium business partners are making time-bound commitments to source seafood sustainably.

That’s why I’ve encouraged international business leaders to embrace new approaches and commitments that will ensure economic prosperity and ocean health. It’s a message I’ve brought to The Economist World Ocean Summit and the World Trade Organization. And it’s an approach we’ve advocated in our work with the national ocean commissions in the U.S., and through international initiatives to help Aquarium business partners use their purchasing power to shift seafood production toward a more sustainable future.

We need the same level of commitment in our approach to bluefin tunas.

Cooperation and collaboration

Bluefin tunas are the perfect example of species that can achieve sustainability only when we cooperate and collaborate. Local fleets could head offshore in California this year and catch  fish from the population that is here. But those fish will only be here for a few years, at most, before they travel across the Pacific to spawning grounds near Japan. We can’t manage them sustainably just by taking action here in California, in U.S. waters, or even in the Eastern Pacific. The solution requires cross-Pacific collaboration involving all the nations involved, and by two Regional Fisheries Management Bodies.

Southern bluefin tuna have their own unique set of stakeholders and challenges, and the situation in the Atlantic is particularly complex given the scientific uncertainties and number of countries involved. In every case, though, the need for action is urgent — and there are plenty of opportunities for transformational success.

Atlantic bluefin tuna recovery is a topic of the Bluefin Futures Symposium. Photo © Gilbert van Ryckevorsel.
Atlantic bluefin tuna recovery is a topic of the Bluefin Futures Symposium. Photo © Gilbert van Ryckevorsel.

Globally, where bluefin tuna populations are recovering, it’s the result of hard work, investments in research and willingness by all parties to turn things around. The next three days are just the beginning of a new conversation and what it will take, from all of us, to assure the sustainability of bluefin tunas in the future.

If we’re successful — and I’m confident we will be — our commitment to worldwide bluefin tuna recovery will create a lasting model of how to achieve sustainability for a species that is both iconic and a  vital player in our global ocean ecosystems. By collaborating, in all the diversity of our perspectives and points of view, we can achieve great things and, together, shape a bright future for bluefin tunas.

Featured photo: Bluefin tuna in the Open Sea exhibit © Charlene Boarts.

A powerful collaboration to ensure the future of bluefin tunas

From Jan. 18-20, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University will convene the world’s leading bluefin tuna researchers, policymakers and stakeholders for the Bluefin Futures Symposium in Monterey. Using the power of its global expertise and diverse perspectives, the group will explore opportunities for international collaboration. Together, the participants will work to create a roadmap toward healthy and sustainable wild bluefin populations across the world’s ocean.

 Here, the Aquarium and three symposium sponsors share their thoughts and hopes for Bluefin Futures.


Margaret Spring

Vice President of Conservation & Science and Chief Conservation Officer, Monterey Bay Aquarium

For decades, scientists around the world have been on a quest to understand bluefin tunas, some of the ocean’s most fascinating, powerful and mysterious top predators. Through our 20 years of collaboration at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University have made significant scientific contributions to our understanding of these amazing animals.

Margaret Spring
Margaret Spring

But given increasing global threats, a future with abundant bluefin tunas will require internationally coordinated research, conservation and management. In a global first, the Bluefin Futures Symposium will bring together many of the world’s leading experts on all three bluefin tuna species in advance of international scientific and management meetings. During the symposium, we’ll be sharing the latest research, science-based management approaches and opportunities to define a sustainable path forward for these iconic and ecologically important species.

Monterey Bay Aquarium is honored to co-host this gathering of world experts, and we’re grateful to our many sponsors. I look forward to hearing from our distinguished speakers and participants on how, working together, we can achieve conservation success for bluefin tunas.

 

Campbell Davies

Senior Principal Research Scientist, Marine and Atmospheric Research, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

Bluefin tuna are iconic species which have captured the imagination of people around the globe for millennia. CSIRO has a long history of association with southern bluefin tuna. Our multi-disciplinary research program, over many decades, has made substantial contributions to our knowledge of the species, methods for studying them (such as archival tagging technology), and development of the early cooperative science and management arrangements required to manage the international fishery.

Campbell Davies
Campbell Davies

We are very pleased to support the Bluefin Futures Symposium. The meeting provides the first opportunity for the global bluefin tuna community to come together and share their understanding of the current state and potential futures for these spectacular fish and the diverse range of fisheries they support.

I’m looking forward to an insightful and productive meeting. I hope it will stimulate the next phase of international cooperation required to conserve the world’s bluefin populations and the fisheries, societies and cultural traditions that depend on them.

 

Amanda Nickson

Director of Global Tuna Conservation, The Pew Charitable Trusts

This important symposium is a global call to action. We must work together to identify conservation solutions for bluefin tuna that are grounded in good science. With such a large representation of viewpoints and expertise from the world’s foremost bluefin scientists, managers and stakeholders, there is an opportunity to complete a roadmap for ending overfishing of all bluefin populations, rebuilding them,​ and putting safeguards in place to ensure bluefin are never overfished again.

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Amanda Nickson (Photo by The Pew Charitable Trusts)

High human demand coupled with insufficient management has put at risk all bluefin tuna species at some point during the last 50 years. There are still populations that have been fished to the brink. The Pacific bluefin tuna catch has been so high that just 4 percent of the population remains today. Current management measures won’t do enough to reverse the decline.

All bluefin species should be valued and managed as much for their ecological importance as they are​ for the price they command at market. It’s especially critical to cooperate and collaborate to save Pacific bluefin.

 

Russell F. Smith III

Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Fisheries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Bluefin Futures Symposium provides a unique opportunity for us, as scientists and managers, to consider how best to manage bluefin tuna stocks in order to ensure their long-term sustainability.

Russell Smith
Russell F. Smith III

Working through the regional fishery management organizations, we should develop harvest strategies that take full advantage of innovations – for example, through use of management strategy evaluation – that help us respond to what we know about changes in the stocks and the fisheries.

At the same time, we should apply a precautionary approach to take uncertainties into account. We must also adopt objectives that lead to meaningful progress in rebuilding depleted stocks. Like the joint tuna regional fisheries management organization process (also known as the Kobe process), this symposium allows us to compare experiences in different oceans and consider how lessons learned might apply elsewhere.

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