Conservation & Science

Counting fish like a BOSS

Counting fish in the ocean isn’t easy—particularly when they swim among jagged rocks and along undersea cliffs hundreds of feet below the waves. To help, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has developed a new camera system called the Benthic Observation Survey System, or BOSS.

The BOSS camera design was fine-tuned, including simulated deployment in MBARI’s test tank, before it was placed in the ocean. BOSS photos ©MBARI

A five-foot metal cylinder that features an array of cameras and lights, the BOSS is designed to be lowered from a ship to the seafloor and land upright on rocky terrain. There, it will help scientists survey fish populations using eight high-definition video cameras.

Researchers and policymakers need this technology to find out more about life in the ocean and how to better protect it. MBARI developed the BOSS with input from investigators at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and The Nature Conservancy .

“The scientists I’m working with are looking at areas that previously were heavily fished out,” explains MBARI staff engineer Chad Kecy, who led the effort to design and build the BOSS. Chad and his colleagues are trying to get a better understanding of how fish populations are recovering in these areas, what species are present, how big they are and where they swim.

Chad likes the challenge of solving problems on a tight timeline. The BOSS had to be built and tested in a matter of months, because the scientists who planned to deploy it already had research trips scheduled on boats that could not wait.

“Now the scientists are busy analyzing all this video they were able to capture with the tool that we developed,” Chad says.

Mary Gleason, science director for The Nature Conservancy’s California Oceans Program and who helped develop the BOSS, says it can fill important gaps in existing data, based on its inaugural voyage: “We showed that we could get 400 video surveys done across 300 miles of coastline during one three-week cruise. So that’s pretty efficient in terms of data quantity.”

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Let’s talk about seawater desalination

Here at Monterey Bay Aquarium, we know a little about seawater desalination. When we added our Open Sea wing in the late 1990s, we built a small-scale desal plant to produce the water that flushes the Aquarium’s toilets.

Tiny as it is, our desal plant drew attention as one of the first in California. “We had engineers from all over the state looking at it,” says Wayne Sperduto, the Aquarium’s facility systems supervisor.

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An aerial view of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

Our onsite desal plant is capable of producing about 22 gallons of fresh water per minute. Compare that to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which last December began delivering fresh water to San Diego County – to the tune of 35,000 gallons per minute.

California’s ongoing drought is driving interest in desalination across the state, and we’re a part of the conversation. In January, Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, through the Center for Ocean Solutions and Water in the West, collaborated with Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Nature Conservancy to convene a wide range of experts to discuss the potential impacts of ocean desalination on coastal and marine ecosystems.

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Talking tuna with Maria Damanaki

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 toward healthy and sustainable wild bluefin tuna populations across the world’s ocean.

One of the symposium’s keynote speakers is Maria Damanaki, global managing director for oceans at The Nature Conservancy and former European Union Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.


Maria Damanaki calls bluefin tunas “silver bullets.” The massive fish are some of the fastest creatures in the sea, tearing through the water in shimmery flashes beneath the waves.

There is, unfortunately, no silver bullet to ensure that bluefin tunas are managed sustainably. A long history of overfishing the three major bluefin species reduced their numbers to very low levels, and regional management efforts over the past 50 years have had mixed results in recovering these stocks. The Pacific bluefin tuna population is still in decline, while the southern bluefin, and some populations of Atlantic bluefin, are seeing some improvements.

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Illustration of an Atlantic bluefin tuna. Courtesy of NOAA.

Damanaki is optimistic that the Bluefin Futures Symposium will facilitate an honest dialogue among the diverse international interest groups and governments with stakes in bluefin tuna management. At the end of the day, she hopes there will be an encouraging outcome.

“This positive message has to be spread, because we need hope,” Damanaki said. “We need to believe that we can do it, and then we’re going to deliver.”

Strict European Union quotas for bluefin tuna and other fisheries sparked a recovery for many overfished species. Photo © EU - Jari Leskinen
Strict European Union quotas for bluefin tuna and other fisheries sparked a recovery for many overfished species. Photo © EU – Jari Leskinen

As European Union Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries from 2010 to 2015, Damanaki implemented a strict monitoring program for Atlantic bluefin populations in the Mediterranean Sea. Under her leadership, the European Commission cut the eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna catch quota by over 50 percent and restricted fishing to just one month per year. As a result, the population of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna have shown signs of recovery.

Still, Damanaki says, sustainable bluefin tuna management has a long way to go. The symposium represents an important step to establish effective and lasting international strategies by bringing together the key people who represent what Damanaki considers the five pillars of bluefin management: the fishing industry, science, policy, non-governmental organizations and technology.

Global distribution of bluefin tunas. Courtesy Marine Conservation Science Institute.
Global distribution of bluefin tunas. Graph courtesy Marine Conservation Science Institute.

Damanaki hopes the science presented at the symposium will inspire additional research. One of the most pressing needs for each of the three bluefin species: improved  population estimates. It’s not easy to count fish that move at fast speeds and travel long distances through the open ocean, even with help from advanced computer modeling. But it’s essential data for policymakers considering tradeoffs between short-term economic interests and long-term recovery of bluefin populations.

Of course, a sustainable future for bluefin tunas depends on more than just data. Damanki says it’s critical for scientists, politicians, NGOs and industry to work together on this issue. And she stresses the importance of partnering with fishers by giving them incentives to cooperate.

“We can’t do this without them.” Damanaki says. “We need all of them to come to a good solution.”

— Lisa Marie Potter

Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust: Preserving local catch for local fishermen

Today marks another big moment in the ongoing comeback of the West Coast groundfish fishery – and of commercial fishing in Monterey Bay.

The Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust has announced the acquisition of $1 million in commercial quota in the fishery from The Nature Conservancy. This means the fishing rights for this important resource stay with local Monterey Bay fisherman and  continue to benefit the community. It also means that regional chefs and restaurants will be able to easily source and serve up a taste of Monterey Bay to their customers.

Fishermen like Monterey's Joe Pennisi will have access to quota to catch groundfish in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy Alan Lovewell.
Fishermen like Monterey’s Joe Pennisi will have access to quota to catch groundfish in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy Alan Lovewell.

“Thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s addition, the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust will be able to support our local, family-owned fishing businesses,” said David Crabbe, commercial fisherman and board president of the Trust. “This will provide stability for our local ports and waterfront businesses, and it will ensure that future fishermen have access to this important fishery for years to come.”

This might not have been the case, though, if  not for the collective efforts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the City of Monterey, and community leaders who worked to establish the new nonprofit organization.  The Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust was created to guarantee a future for stable and sustainable fisheries and fishing communities around the bay.

Locally caught rockfish and other groundfish will be available to Monterey area seafood lovers.
Locally caught rockfish and other groundfish will be available to Monterey area seafood lovers.

In 2011, a new fishery management program, called catch shares, went into effect for 90 species of the West Coast groundfish fishery (such as sablefish, petrale sole, and rockfish) as part of the conservation effort that led to the fishery’s recovery.  Since catch shares can be bought and sold, large, well-capitalized businesses from outside the region could have potentially outbid local fishermen for the quota. Without access to quota, small-scale fishermen would be unable to land groundfish out of Monterey Bay. The community would miss out on the economic, social, and environmental benefits that result from a local, sustainably managed fishery.

Thanks to the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust, this won’t happen now. It will acquire the quotas and hold them in trust for the community, helping keep long-time fishing families in business, and ensuring a future for the next generation of fishermen.

“Our future depends on the health of the ocean,” said Margaret Spring, the aquarium’s vice president of conservation and science and chief conservation officer. Spring also serves as vice president of the Fisheries Trust board. “We hope others in our community will contribute to the remarkable recovery of the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery by purchasing local, sustainably caught groundfish, and supporting this innovative effort to advance both economic opportunity and ocean conservation.”

Learn more about The Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust.

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