While determining the cause of global warming is not Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute’s mission – that’s left to others like La Jolla’s Scripps Research Institution – but responding to the consequences of global warming, however, is what Hubbs-SeaWorld is all about.
“We’re on the front end of trying to understand what the impacts of global warming are to wild populations and animal systems, and how we can help overcome that,” said Donald B. Kent, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute president/CEO. “We’re not about predicting doomsday. We’re trying to avoid doomsday by saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’”
Added Kent: “We’re studying the impacts of (global warming) on our food supply. Can we farm the sea if we can’t catch any more fish? What happens if we have heat domes in harvest season? Or if it rains too much and crops are destroyed?”
Headquartered at Perez Cove in Mission Bay, with a smaller facility in Florida, the nonprofit scientific research foundation is committed to providing innovative scientific solutions to challenges facing ocean health. The goal is to conserve and renew marine life ensuring a healthier planet.
The institute began in 1963 when SeaWorld co-founder Milton C. Shedd, an avid fisherman and conservationist, recognized the importance of developing and nurturing scientific nonprofit research with the intent “to return to the sea some measure of the benefits derived from it.”
The research foundation was later rededicated as Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute honoring Dr. Carl Leavitt Hubbs and his inspiring achievements in ocean science and education. From 1944 to 1969, Hubbs taught biology at SIO and at UC San Diego in La Jolla. Hubbs did research in commercial and recreational fishing, observing changes in fish population patterns that depend on the fluctuation in Pacific Ocean temperatures.
Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute’s four main study areas are: Sustainable seafood (aquaculture), restoring depleted fish populations; animal behavior (bioacoustics), sound impacts on animal behavior; wildlife populations (ecology); and ocean health (physiology).
Kent recently led a tour through Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and showed off its labs, tanks and research facilities. We met Ann Bowles, a senior research scientist, who was busy with numerous projects, including studying the impact of plane noise on endangered bird species such as the least Bell’s vireo, and the California gnatcatcher at Camp Pendleton.
“For many years we’ve been concerned about the effects of aircraft noise on birds with the addition of helicopters at Camp Pendleton,” said Bowles. “We measured the quality of the bird’s habitat, kept track of temperatures, things not done in the past. It turns out that stuff (habitat quality) explained their reproductive success, not noise (impact), which was subtle.”
“We try not to be advocates for anything other than good science,” said Kent, showing huge vats in the back of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute where experiments are being conducted on farming of edible fish species like halibut, yellowtail tuna and white sea bass.
“These are self-cleaning tanks that we put fish eggs in and harvest,” said Kent. “In 50 to 60 days, we can harvest 150,000 juveniles out of a tank like this.”
Fish harvests can be enhanced by adjusting elements like night/day and water temperature.
Noted Kent: “We want to learn what kind of diets can we use to grow fish that don’t use fish meal? Can we use trimming left over from filleting? Or use soybeans or soy as an alternative? We’re experimenting with that now.”
Admitted Kent, “I’m very worried about how we’re going to feed ourselves in the future.”
Noting that “everything in life is trial and error,” Kent said, “We’ve learned a lot based on things that didn’t work. When something works, you try to refine it a little bit more.”
Ongoing experiments at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute could prove to be one answer to “farming” the world’s oceans and safeguarding the planet’s food supplies.
“The idea is to find a diet that feeds fish more cheaply, while still maintaining the health and quality of the product,” Kent said. “If wild fish costs $12 a pound, and cultured fish is $5 a pound, more people can buy it and enjoy a healthy meal.”
Concluded Kent: “That’s what we focus on. Can we grow a fish that is less expensive than catching a fish? Can we offset global warming producing different kinds of protein products that are safe for the environment?”