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A Tribute to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch on World Oceans Day

In celebration of World Oceans Day Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul explores some of the conservation initiatives of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of Oceans, including the highly successful Seafood Watch program.

As I drove home today along the Turnagain Arm estuary—a branch of Cook Inlet—I listened to the Alaska Fisheries report on National Public Radio. I didn’t hear any mention of this being World Oceans Day.  What I did hear was story after story of illegal fish harvests. I also learned that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting in Kodiak this week to discuss among other things, the halibut bycatch limit and an urgent need to reduce it. A report in the Anchorage Daily News last week had indicated that “the amount of halibut that can be harvested by fishermen—in the Gulf of Alaska has dropped 58 percent in the past 10 years—and commercial catch limits for the directed long-line fishery in the Gulf have been reduced by 60 percent.”  The halibut resource in Alaska is not the only commercial fishery in trouble.  Fish and invertebrate populations worldwide are in great decline. Fortunately, institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium are trying to conserve our oceans’ fisheries through awareness and advocacy programs, which may ultimately help restore declining marine resources.

Traveling along California’s Northern Central Coast, south of Wine Country, takes you near a North American hub for marine research and marine science education. It is no coincidence that this mecca for marine science is located on the coast of one the world’s most biologically diverse bodies of water—Monterey Bay. On the southern edge of the Bay sits Monterey, California, which is home to one of the most prestigious aquariums in the world—the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA).

A short drive north to Moss Landing, near the center of Monterey Bay, sits the Aquarium’s sister institution—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)—a state of the art oceanographic research facility. The Institute employs over 200 researchers, engineers, and support staff and operates a number of automated technologies for ocean exploration and data collection. The Institute also has a fleet of research vessels capable of deploying underwater vehicles.  Although not open to the public, the Institute does host an annual open house.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is 15 miles to the southwest of the Institute, is one of the most popular attractions in the state of California. Particularly popular among visitors to the aquarium is the famous Kelp Forest exhibit. The nearly 9 meter tall, 333,000-gallon exhibit is one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world and the first to display a living kelp forest.  Kelp require a constant movement of water to facilitate the absorption of nutrients. At the Aquarium the giant marine algae are nourished by a simulated wave surge created by a wave machine.

Considered ecosystem engineers, kelp blades extensively modify marine environments, forming great canopies as they ascend and reach the ocean’s surface. A single blade can grow as much as two feet per day!

Kelp forests are not only impressive three dimensional habitats, providing refuge for a great diversity of sea life from sea lions to rock fish, they are some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet.  The exhibit at the aquarium captures this rich and dynamic habit through a world-class, innovative display.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of Oceans endeavors to preserve critical habitats along the California coast, like the kelp forests.  Conserving such productive marine habitat is vital for the future of fisheries and the health of oceans.  The Aquarium hopes to empower people, which may become it’s biggest challenge in an effort to save the marine biome.

Promoting the sustainable consumption of fisheries, through Seafood Watch—a sustainable seafood program launched in 1999—may very well be the Center’s most important and ambitious conservation program to date.

In celebration of World Oceans Day, I wanted to highlight Seafood Watch. Among all anthropogenic factors that are detrimental to ocean health, over-fishing may have the largest impact on marine ecosystems. Marine fisheries biologists suspect that humans have harvested as much as 90% of the oceans predatory fish (e.g. sharks, swordfish). The oceans’ fisheries are highly compromised—jeopardizing our food supply and marine resource economies.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a leader in teaching responsible and sustainable seafood consumption practices to consumers, whole sale and retail suppliers, and restaurants.  Through Seafood Watch, the Aquarium empowers people, helping them to make environmentally friendly choices consistent with living sustainable lifestyles that promote a healthy planet.   The Aquarium encourages people to become advocates of ocean-friendly seafood.  It offers a searchable seafood database on its website that ranks seafood on the basis of its conservation status or impact to wild fisheries.  The Seafood Watch program also publishes regionally-specific printed and mobile pocket guides, which provide consumers with easy access to information on sustainable, ocean-friendly seafood.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium also partners with zoos, other aquariums, restaurants, retailers, universities, food co-ops, seafood suppliers, and others in an effort to raise awareness concerning sustainable seafood and to encourage people to make ocean-friendly choices as consumers of marine resources. According to the program’s website, “partners can distribute Seafood Watch cards, offer sustainable seafood on [their] menu, conduct outreach, participate in research or connect [their] mission to [the Aquarium's] in other ways.”

The outlook is not entirely bleak. The Seafood Watch publication Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood Report provides some reason for hope as it indicates that commercial entities are now recognizing and responding to the threats to our oceans’ fisheries.  Raising awareness among the consumer base and the suppliers is paying off.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium and its partners are highly invested in the Seafood Watch program and their commitment to promoting sustainable seafood is something we should praise on this day dedicated to the world’s oceans.