Conservation & Science

White House honors sustainable seafood champions

Nominee Mary Sue Milliken serves Alaska Bairdi crab passionfruit aguachile at the Champions of Change reception.

This week, the White House named 12 “Champions of Change for Sustainable Seafood.” The awards recognize the people at the heart of America’s seafood industry—the fishermen, business owners, entrepreneurs, chefs and coastal leaders—who work tirelessly to support both the economic and ecological viability of our nation’s fisheries.

Thanks to their efforts and strong federal oversight, the U.S. remains a global model of seafood sustainability.

Monterey Bay Aquarium is pleased to count several of the winners and nominees among our Seafood Watch Business and Restaurant Partners, Blue Ribbon Task Force members and other collaborators. Working with Seafood Watch, they help raise consumer awareness about seafood sustainability and push for improvements in the supply chain.

Read more…

Dispatch from the Sea of Japan: Tagging takes teamwork

The Conservation & Science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has worked for more than two decades to understand and recover bluefin tuna populations – particularly Pacific bluefin tuna, whose population has declined historically due to overfishing. A key piece of our efforts is tagging bluefin tuna in the wild so we can document their migrations across ocean basins. Much of our work takes place in the Eastern Pacific, but this month we’re partnering with Japanese colleagues to tag bluefin tuna in the Sea of Japan. Tuna Research and Conservation Center Research Technician Ethan Estess, working with Program Manager Chuck Farwell, is chronicling his experience in the field. This the first dispatch in his series.

Tags are laid out on a tatami mat, prepped and ready for use when the tagging team heads out to sea.
Tags are laid out on a tatami mat, prepped and ready for use when the tagging team heads out to sea.

The alarm buzzes beside my head and, opening my eyes, I have no idea where I am.

I’m lying on the floor of a room covered wall-to-wall in woven straw mats, with rice paper windows and a table rising a foot off the ground. Right. Japan. Sado Island in the Sea of Japan, where I’m sleeping on a traditional tatami mat. Yesterday’s cannery whistle is blowing back home at the Monterey Bay Aquarium at noon, but my 4 a.m. alarm tells me it’s time to get up and find some Pacific bluefin tuna.

One year ago, I sat in a third-floor office at the aquarium with my colleague Chuck Farwell and Dr. Ko Fujioka from Japan’s National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries as we went through the steps necessary to deploy a satellite tag on a bluefin tuna. We discussed the tag attachment system that anchors the small electronic device to the animal for up to a year at a time, as well as the process for programming the tag’s onboard computer to record the whereabouts and behaviors of these wide-ranging fish. Read more…

Seafood traceability: A different kind of fish tracking

You may have heard of electronic tagging — technology that lets scientists track the movement of animals. Experts at Monterey Bay Aquarium and our partner institutions have used electronic tags to track sea otters along the California coast, as well as white sharks and bluefin tunas on their meandering marine migrations.

Now we’re cheering another kind of fish tracking: the kind that happens after they’re caught. Following the movement of seafood through the supply chain, a practice known as traceability, is key to ensuring fish products sold in the U.S. are sustainable and legal.

The Obama Administration just released a proposed rule that details how a traceability system may work to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It would also help reduce seafood fraud, which happens when consumers are misled about the identity or source of the seafood products they buy.

The Coast Guard Cutter Rush escorts suspected IUU vessel. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama got the ball rolling on a federal effort to fight IUU fishing on a global scale. The newly announced seafood traceability program would make it easier for regulators to electronically track seafood coming into the United States — and keep illegal fish products out.

Margaret Spring, the Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation & Science and Chief Conservation Officer, welcomed the release of the proposed rule.

“IUU fishing threatens ocean health and food security, and harms coastal economies and communities,” she said. “If designed correctly, the new traceability program could create needed transparency within the complex international seafood supply chain, reduce the risk of illegal products entering U.S. commerce and advance the sustainable seafood movement.”

A 2011 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization assessment found that 25 percent of 600 fish stocks monitored worldwide are overexploited, which can lead to population collapse. Another 52 percent are “fully exploited,” meaning any increase in fishing pressure could reduce their numbers to unsustainable levels.

These numbers matter as nations work together to conserve marine life in international waters. IUU fishing undermines those cooperative efforts, threatening the long-term sustainability of commercially important fisheries like crab, tuna and shrimp. One estimate puts the cost of IUU fishing to legitimate fishing fleets and to governments at $10 billion to $23.5 billion per year.

Click here to read Margaret’s full statement about the proposed rule.

And for some big-picture inspiration about why it matters:

Featured photo: Traceability will give consumers more confidence that the fish they’re buying was legally harvested. Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries.

Closing the loop on food production

What do worms, carp and lettuce have in common? They’re all part of an experimental food facility aiming to produce both fish and vegetables with virtually no waste, and very few inputs.

The aquarium’s Conservation & Science team recently visited TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, an 1,800-acre cattle ranch in Pescadero, California. Founded by investor, philanthropist and climate/energy activist Tom Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, TomKat has become a cutting-edge model of sustainable agriculture. Ranch managers maximize the carbon-absorbing powers of grasslands by carefully migrating their cows across the land, producing TomKat’s signature LeftCoast GrassFed beef.

TomKat fish food flow chartBut TomKat doesn’t stop at ranching; it’s constantly experimenting with other forms of eco-friendly food production. A few of us took the opportunity to tour Symbi Biological, which takes its name from the principle of symbiosis: a mutually beneficial relationship between living beings. That’s a good description for aquaponics, in which farmed fish produce waste that fertilizes hydroponic plants, and the plants return the favor by filtering the water for the fish.

Bins full of worms

Doug Millar is the mastermind of Symbi, which runs under parent company InKa Biospheric. Wearing a weathered cowboy hat atop a 6-foot-3 frame, Millar takes us first to see worm bins filled with manure from the ranch’s horses. Various species of squirmy residents, from earthworms to mealworms, turn the poop into nutrient-rich compost that helps fertilize the pasture.

Worms enrich the compost that fertilizes grazing land. They, in turn, become food for fish in the aquaponic farm tanks.
Worms enrich the compost that fertilizes grazing land. They, in turn, become food for fish in the aquaponic farm tanks.

But compost is just a side benefit; it’s the worms Millar is after. They’re part of his special recipe for homemade fish food. Another ingredient is crickets, which he breeds in a hydroponic tent he calls “the hopper hopper.” The bugs live in plastic-lidded tubs outfitted with dirt trays (where the larvae incubate) and stacked egg cartons, which separate the hatched crickets so they don’t eat each other. A low-tech temperature controller keeps the tent toasty; the ranch’s solar panels help offset the energy.

What about food for the crickets? Millar makes that, too. He cultivates spirulina algae in a standard home fish tank, dries it out and feeds the powder to the bugs, turning the transparent baby crickets green.

Food for the fish

The crickets, worms and spirulina provide protein for the goldfish carp, which live in deep, round tanks in the pump room. The species isn’t on the typical American menu, but Millar’s crew once harvested about 100 and had a party, preparing them in a variety of ways. “They taste a little pondy,” Millar admits. Next time, he says, he’ll try moving the fish to a clearing tank for a couple of days before harvest.

The fish-poop-fertilized wastewater flows through PVC pipes into the crown jewel of Symbi’s operation: the greenhouse. Bright bursts of butter lettuce and bundles of basil with super-sized leaves float in polystyrene panels on aquaponic grow beds, their roots reaching through holes into the nutrient-rich water.

Compost is returned to the fields to nurture grasslands that feed the TomKat beef herd.
Compost is returned to the fields to nurture grasslands that feed the TomKat beef herd.

From there, the water – cleaned by the plant roots – cycles back to the fish tanks. The recirculation adds up to real conservation: Millar says it only takes 1.5 gallons to produce a head of Symbi lettuce. Pretty impressive, compared with an average of 13.6 gallons for a one-pound head grown on soil.

The circle is unbroken

Ranch staff serve the produce at the events they host, and Millar donates the rest to Pescadero Middle and High School to be served in the cafeteria. The aquaponics operation also produces barley, which is nutrient-rich feed for the ranch animals. And when the horses digest the barley? You guessed it: More manure for the worms, closing the loop on this sustainable food system.

Several farmed fish on the aquarium’s Seafood Watch “Best Choices” list are raised in similar recirculated aquaculture systems, in which wastewater is treated and then re-used.

“Because you’re treating the waste and capturing the waste stream, the environmental impacts we found were relatively minor compared with other production systems,” says Brian Albaum, business engagement manager for Seafood Watch.

Green-listed seafood produced with this water-wise method include U.S. farmed tilapia, barramundi, sturgeon and yellow perch. Learn more about Seafood Watch recommendations, including these farmed “Best Choices,” at

Kera Abraham Panni

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