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Sustainable Seas

Mystic Aquarium scientists conduct studies to understand how species of marine fishes interact across underwater landscapes and and how the dynamics of such interactions influence their distribution, abundance, and diversity. From an applied science perspective, the research provides greater understanding of the ecological effects of human disturbances such as commercial scale fishing on developing a scientific basis for using marine protected areas as a conservation tool and on the role that aquaculture can play to reduce fishing pressure on wild fish communities.

Sustainable Seas

Community Ecology of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Gulf of Maine

Understanding the role that marine protected areas can play in both conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity is a key element for managing fisheries and other human uses of the ocean. While much information is available for tropical coral reefs, kelp forests and similar shallow water habitats around the globe, fewer studies have been conducted in deep water outer continental shelf environments, where most commercial fishing activities take place. Mystic Aquarium scientists and collaborators carried out a 12 year study of the recovery of seafloor communities and patterns of habitat use by fishes at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine. Interestingly, rocky habitats had not fully recovered from fishing disturbance after even 12 years. A recent study of fish community changes over four decades revealed that the most recent period exhibited multiple changes in species composition and diversity consistent with predicted effects of climate change.  The results of this work and related studies provide critical pieces of information to make decisions regarding species conservation and habitat protection.

Behavior Webs of Piscivores

Higher trophic level predators can have profound effects on marine communities and ecosystems.  How predators interact with each other, and how prey responds, can alter the efficiency of predator-prey relationships.  The behavioral ecology of piscivores (fish-eating fish) is the focus of studies  at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary to better understand the interactions that link predators and prey and regulate their populations. Previous studies by Mystic Aquarium scientists and colleagues found that foraging by fish predators in the water column actually enhanced feeding opportunities for predators that hunt on or near reefs. For example, groups of greater amberjack, Spanish mackerel, and great barracuda were observed using coordinated hunting behaviors, both within and among species, when preying upon dense schools of juvenile tomtate (a reef fish that schools when young) and round scad (locally known as “cigar minnows”). These hunting behaviors drove schools of small fish closer to reef habitats on the seafloor and created feeding opportunities for reef predators like scamp,  gag grouper, and black sea bass. Current studies expand on these initial observations and combine several methods, including sonar and acoustic tags, for observing fish behavior and distribution to get an improved “picture” of the interactions between species and to understand if such interactions are different inside and outside a protected area. The primary goal of this work is to determine the importance that these types of behavioral interactions have in local food webs.  Additional studies at marine reserves off Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador focus on assessing similar interactions in different, but highly protected, marine ecosystems.  The ultimate goal of this research is to develop quantitative measures of the status of predator communities based on species interactions and to aid development of ecologically-based management targets for marine protected areas.

Ecology of Deep Sea Coral Communities

Conservation policies and management of extremely sensitive and vulnerable deep-sea coral communities in both national and international waters is hindered by fragmented knowledge of their ecology as well as ability to recover from human impacts. In large part, most of our knowledge of deep-sea coral distribution  comes from research programs directed at other species. However, in the past decade plus, occupied submersibles and remotely operated vehicles have been used to investigate locations chosen specifically for the high probability of finding deep sea corals. Despite this work, we still don’t know the extent of corals, or most deep-sea species, around seamounts, throughout canyons, and in other precipitous features found on outer continental shelves and in the deep ocean. This knowledge is critical for considering how to balance human activities such as fishing and minerals exploration with conservation. Research projects have focused on identifying deep sea corals habitats in the Gulf of Maine that are likely the last refugia for such animals after a century of fishing there, submarine canyons and seamounts off the northeast US, the deep fiords of Glacier Bay National Park off southeast Alaska, and the seamounts in US waters of the western Pacific. .  The results of these projects inform development of policies and management alternatives to conserve these fragile communities as well as contribute to understanding their ecological role in outer shelf and deep sea ecosystems.

Ecological Mapping of Long Island Sound

Understanding how natural resources are distributed is critical for managing public waters based on principles of conservation and sustainable use.  The State of Connecticut, the State of New York, and the U.S. Environmental Protection (USEPA) agency have multiple mandates to preserve and protect coastal and estuarine environments and water quality of Long Island Sound, while balancing competing human and energy needs with protection and restoration of essential ecological function and habitats. Maps of the ecological resources in the Sound will greatly aid in addressing management needs. A multi-year ecological mapping program has been implemented to produce such maps. An initial pilot project focused on the Stratford Shoals region was completed to develop field and analytical approaches to produce maps that are both use-friendly and user-useful.  Current work in eastern Long Island Sound is underway.  These efforts provide important contributions to the Long Island Sound Blue Plan, a marine spatial planning process with a goal to inform decision-making by accounting for natural resources and minimizing conflicts with conservation goals and multiple human uses.

Research in Support of a Marine National Monument

On September 14, 2016, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was designated off the coast of New England, the first marine monument in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean. Mystic Aquarium’s senior research scientist Dr. Peter Auster, with colleagues at University of Connecticut and New England Aquarium, was instrumental in providing the scientific rationale for conservation of the area.

Mystic Aquarium scientists and partners have explored and conducted pioneering research in this region for decades. A comprehensive scientific analysis of ecological data revealed that this biodiversity hotspot is one of the best remaining examples of an undisturbed ecosystem in the U.S. North Atlantic — making it vital to future scientific research, especially in the face of climate change. This “living laboratory” has much to teach us about how nature works in the ocean when undisturbed by commercial scale human activities.

It is Mystic Aquarium’s mission to expand the public’s knowledge of and appreciation for our ocean planet; especially places like the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.  Undersea images from recent exploration and research activities in the area were used to produce our new exhibit “Our Blue Park” to experience this very special and remote place in New England’s waters.


Mystic Aquarium’s core values – respect for animals, guests, staff and community; excellence in research, education and conservation; and promotion of conservation and awareness of our ocean planet through all we do, are the driving force for our conservation and sustainability initiatives. These values serve as a guide for all staff to conduct their daily responsibilities, from animal care to event planning, in a method to minimize our environmental impact.

Internal Practices

The Green Team is a cross-departmental committee that ensures campus sustainability through routine energy audits, monitoring of staff green practices and develops sustainable initiatives. From analyzing and improving energy efficiency and consumption to implementing paper and plastic reduction, composting and other waste management initiatives to inspiring individual action and behavior, the Green Team seeks to achieve measurable annual goals toward a more sustainable campus.

It is our goal to educate and inform our guests about the importance of sustainable seafood. According to NOAA Fisheries, sustainable seafood is the most environmentally efficient source of protein on the planet. In the United States, both wild-caught and farmed fish and shellfish are managed under a system of enforced environmentally responsible practices. Both wild-capture and farmed fish are essential for ensuring sustainable supplies of seafood are available for our nation and the world.

For Mystic Aquarium, this starts right here at home! We feed our animals not only restaurant quality fish that is hand-inspected before it is fed to our animals; but also ensure that is sustainably sourced!

Other Initiatives
  • Guests to Mystic Aquarium are encouraged to download the Seafood Watch app.
  • Recycling stations are distributed throughout campus and contract agreements are in place for internal pickup of all items including cardboard, paper, cans, bottles, batteries, light bulbs and e-waste.
  • Scrap metal and used machinery oil is collected and recycled.
  • Unused food fish for the animals is collected and is used during educational programs or donated to the local fishing industry.
  • A computerized energy management system is utilized for optimal HVAC efficiency and automatic lighting control.
  • To conserve water, filter backwash recovery systems are in place for our marine mammal exhibit pools.
  • Additionally, low consumption flush valves with automatic sensors are installed for all toilets and urinals.
  • Installation of an electric charging station for electric and electric/hybrid vehicles not only encourages the use of low-emission vehicles but doubles as an educational tool.