$10 million donation launches Smithsonian study of coastal marine biodiversity

Washington Department of Ecology/WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF ECOLOGY - A scientist of the Washington Department of Ecology passes by a marine waters monitoring buoy.

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Michael Tennenbaum, philanthropist and senior managing partner of Los Angeles-based Tennenbaum Capital Partners, and his wife, Suzanne, have given $10 million to launch a long-term project to study coastal marine biodiversity and global ecosystems, the Smithsonian Institution announced Thursday.

The Smithsonian’s Tennenbaum Marine Observatories aim to monitor the ocean’s coastal ecosystems to study environmental change around the world’s coasts.

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“I think it’s way past due,” said Tennenbaum, an avid diver for more than two decades. “As an investment person, I like to deal with relevant information and to have hundreds of billions of dollars affected, and huge discussions around climate change and oceans without long-term, large samples of information is, to me, a bad idea.”

Tennenbaum said that when Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, a longtime friend, called to ask for help, he quickly saw the need. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population live within 100 miles of a coastline, but long-term ocean data are scarce. “The key is having a standardized method for collecting data and a wide spatial area so scientists can see the big picture over a long period of time,” Clough said.

The project will have three sites within a year and a total of five shortly thereafter — Edgewater, Md.; Fort Pierce, Fla.; Carrie Bow Cay, Belize; and two Panama locations. It will feature biology, ecology and anthropology experts and use technologies such as DNA sequencing. It will gauge how coastal biodiversity is affected by human activities and global changes including ocean warming, acidification and rising sea levels. It’s modeled after the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories, which include 47 global land plots that have been studied for more than three decades.

Tennenbaum has spent a career working with numbers, but “I’m a water guy, too,” he said. He has scuba-dived “with sharks and whales and rays, and it’s a great ad­ven­ture.”

“I want others to share in that pleasure and excitement,” he said. “I’m more concerned that the ocean’s food and climate be studied in a very intensive way, and the effort deserves big scale, and a quick ramp-up, instead of a lot of talk about the problems.”

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