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.” Continue reading Designing an animal-friendly fin tag

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.

Tirelessly tracking bluefin tunas

Bluefin tunas are among the ocean’s most fabulous fish. Sleek and strong, they cross oceans in mere weeks, warm their bodies by capturing their metabolic heat,  and live for decades. They’re also prized commodities, especially as sushi in restaurants around the world. Given bluefin’s high cultural and economic value, overfishing has driven some populations of these prized ocean predators into steep decline.

How to rebuild bluefin populations remains a critical question — one science can help us answer.

Tuna swim in a flume, also known as a “tuna treadmill,” at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

Researchers and fisheries managers around the world are working to protect and recover bluefin tuna populations. But conservation efforts must be informed by basic science: When do bluefin mature? Where do they travel in the ocean? When do they stop to eat?

From Jan. 18-20, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University will convene the world’s top bluefin researchers, policy makers and stakeholders to share cutting-edge data and new approaches to conserving these iconic species. Together, they’ll look to identify areas for international collaboration.

The Tuna Research and Conservation Center, a partnership between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University.
The Tuna Research and Conservation Center is a partnership between Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University.

The upcoming meeting is the brainchild of Stanford University professor Barbara Block, who’s devoted her research career to the hows and whys of bluefin tunas. It also reflects three decades of collaboration between Barbara and Chuck Farwell, the Aquarium’s Tuna Research and Conservation Manager.

In 1993, Barbara was recruited to Stanford from the University of Chicago. During the visit, she and Chuck hatched a plan to join forces and build a tuna facility at Stanford: the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC). They hoped to jointly accomplish two missions: to help the Aquarium exhibit tunas, and to start a research facility specializing in the biology of these Olympic-caliber athletes.

The science of “fish and chips”

For more than 20 years, the TRCC team has focused on big-picture tuna challenges. First up was learning how to keep yellowfin and bluefin tunas in captivity — research that eventually enabled the Aquarium to display the sleek predators in the Open Sea exhibit.

Tuna in a TRCC tank. Photo ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, by Tyson V. Rininger
Tuna in a TRCC tank.

In 1996, the TRCC team began asking where tunas go in the wild. Barbara had worked with the father of tuna biology, Dr. Frank Carey (to whom the TRCC lab is dedicated), to track tunas with telemetry. Using tracking technology, the team  has explored questions of where tunas travel in the ocean and how their bodies handle the extreme conditions they face on their migrations — between continents, from subtropical to temperate waters, and to depths of more than 6,000 feet. Their findings are helping inform conservation practices that could help bluefin tuna populations recover in years to come.

The TRCC team has mapped the migrations of hundreds of Pacific bluefin tuna.
The TRCC team has mapped the migrations of hundreds of Pacific bluefin tuna.

The TRCC team’s research has been especially challenging and transformative for one reason: It’s difficult to understand where animals go, and what they do, when they’re underwater and far from shore.

“Most of us from [a] ship — even I — look out at the ocean and see a homogeneous sea,” Barbara explained during a 2010 TED talk. “We don’t know where the structure is. We can’t tell where the watering holes are, like we can on an African plain.”

Using the “fish and chips” strategy, TRCC scientists have uncovered critical information about where tunas travel. In the early 2000s, they documented tunas making transoceanic journeys. Some of the bluefin born in Japan travel to the California coast, and some born in the Gulf of Mexico travel to the European coast. The discovery of these fishes’ highly migratory behavior has greatly improved our understanding of all three bluefin species, and informs international negotiations on conserving bluefin tuna populations.

Warm-blooded but cold-hearted

Other studies have uncovered where bluefin tunas eat and where they spawn — two crucial bits of information when it comes to protecting them and essential tuna habitats. A recent paper in the journal Science Advances identified key bluefin tuna feeding locations in the Pacific, and determined they prefer searching for food in specific conditions.

Chuck Farwell at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center. Photo ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, by Tyson V. Rininger
Chuck Farwell checks in on fish at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

“They tend to select a certain temperature range to live in,” Chuck explains. “They also have the ability to dive and explore in very warm or very cold water, for short periods of time.”

In collaboration with tuna researchers in Japan, Chuck and the TRCC have been working in the Sea of Japan to find out where Pacific bluefin spawn, and what habitat the young fish utilize as they develop. Their work should be published later this year.

The TRCC team is making important discoveries about bluefin physiology, too. Unlike most fishes, tuna are warm-blooded, or “endothermic,” meaning they can heat their bodies above the temperature of the surrounding ocean. But not every body part gets warmed equally. Bluefin maintain heat in their eyes, brain, swimming muscles and guts. But their hearts are cold, experiencing temperature drops of tens of degrees Celsius during deep dives. How do tuna manage to keep their hearts pumping at temperatures that would stop a human heart?

Barbara Block and other TRCC researchers have perfected the art of tagging giant bluefin tuna at sea.
Barbara Block and other TRCC researchers have perfected the art of tagging giant bluefin tuna at sea.

In 2015, Barbara and colleagues published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B that answered this question. They found that adrenaline was the secret. Cold temperatures trigger an adrenaline rush, which helps maintain the level of calcium in tuna hearts. Without calcium, the heart would not be able to beat normally at extremely cold temperatures.

In May, Barbara will receive the 2016 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Science. The award is just one of several she has earned over the past two decades — including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” — but her tireless work is far from finished. There are still hundreds of questions to be answered, more bluefin to track, and populations to preserve.

A chance to inspire change

Illustration of an Atlantic bluefin tuna – one of three bluefin tuna species, along with southern and Pacific.

By tagging bluefin tuna in the wild and learning more about their physiology in captivity, the TRCC team is producing data crucial to sustainable management. Barbara hopes that by bringing together global scientists, fishers, managers and policymakers, we can ensure that collaboration increases, transfer of knowledge improves, and the steep decline of bluefin populations in the Pacific and the western Atlantic reverses in her lifetime.

Chuck has high hopes the Bluefin Futures Symposium will bring the science to bear on management solutions. “Everyone at the Aquarium that’s involved in this has high expectations there will be positive outcomes,” he says.

Learn more about the Bluefin Futures Symposium at

— Diana LaScala-Gruenewald

Featured photo: Dr. Barbara Block was honored in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2012. Photo by Rolex.

Chuck Farwell: Tuna Scientist, Mentor, Fish Whisperer

No two days are the same in the life of Chuck Farwell, manager of the Aquarium’s Tuna Research and Conservation Program. Some days he’s helping the husbandry team maintain our stock of Pacific bluefin tuna. Other days he’s on a boat at sea, surgically implanting electronic tracking tags into the bellies of fish. And some days he’s in Japan, advocating for the conservation and preservation of the Pacific bluefin tuna.

Chuck Farwell at the TRCC
Chuck Farwell at the TRCC

Chuck has been working with tuna since the 1960s, when he first surveyed albacore tuna ranges for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. He joined the Aquarium before it opened in 1984, with a long-term vision of developing husbandry techniques to allow us to keep and maintain tuna. At the time, no aquarium outside Japan had ever kept tuna on permanent exhibit. In 1996, Monterey became the first, with displays of yellowfin and bluefin tuna.

Now, Chuck focuses on Pacific bluefin tuna, large predators that can migrate across ocean basins in a matter of weeks. They’re beautiful, lightning-fast and as majestic as they are delicious. The species is prized among seafood enthusiasts – primarily for the high-end sushi trade.

Dramatic population collapse Continue reading Chuck Farwell: Tuna Scientist, Mentor, Fish Whisperer