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Science in the hands that need it: Turning the tide on ocean acidification in New Zealand

Posted On August 1, 2014 by

In 2013, I worked on a shellfish boat in New Zealand.  We used hydraulic systems to lift lines of shellfish out of the water, conveyor belts to sort them, and packaged mussels by the thousands in giant, half ton sacks.  A far cry from the low-tech nighttime dredging from a longtail boat I saw in Thailand.

With this technological edge, surely New Zealand shellfish farmers are less vulnerable to ocean acidification than those in regions like Southeast Asia.

But that is not what I found.  I found shellfish farmers in New Zealand to be highly vulnerable to ocean acidification. This wasn’t because the country lacked the technology or knowledge to be resilient, but because that technology and knowledge wasn’t making it into the hands of the shellfish farmers.

The oyster farmers I lived and worked with on Stewart Island told me how the oysters they grew hadn’t reproduced properly in two years.  Was this caused by ocean acidification?  There was no way to know really, because nobody was monitoring the chemistry of the local waters, and nobody had studied how this species might respond to ocean acidification.

I spoke with one of the pioneers of the green-lipped mussel farming industry in the Marlborough Sounds.  “Have people here been talking about ocean acidification?” I asked him. “No, not at all, not at all.”

Three weeks earlier, when I attended the New Zealand Workshop on ocean acidification, there had been a lot of talk.  But the discussions at the 2013 workshop didn’t focus on the concerns of the New Zealanders most vulnerable to ocean acidification.  Only a handful of the 50+ papers presented at the meeting were about shellfish species grown in New Zealand.  This isn’t to say the research presented at the workshop wasn’t scientifically relevant or important to understanding the mechanisms of ocean acidification on a global level, It absolutely was.  But it begged the question: when you have a current crisis like ocean acidification, shouldn’t we focus some science on answering the questions of the people and communities most at risk?

That’s the conclusion I came to.  And, I’m happy to say, New Zealand has come to that conclusion, too.  In December 2013, the United States Department of State, in collaboration with Global Ocean Health, the Marine Conservation Institute, the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries and other partners, sponsored a workshop called “Future proofing New Zealand’s shellfish aquaculture: monitoring and adaptation to ocean acidification.”

The workshop brought experts from the frontlines of the oyster crisis in the Pacific Northwest to New Zealand.  For the first time, scientists and industry members were in the same room, talking about ocean acidification together.

And they have kept talking.  Since the workshop, key industry partners have stepped up to sponsor a new monitoring network that will focus on important shellfish growing regions.  The 2014 New Zealand Ocean Acidification Workshop featured sessions on managing and monitoring ocean acidification.  Industry members, who, in early 2013, had voiced doubt over the impact of ocean acidification on the shellfish industry, were suddenly giving presentations on the threat of ocean acidification to their livelihood.  The organizers of the original, December 2013, workshop just released a beautiful video highlighting the value of shellfish to New Zealand, and the threats ocean acidification poses.

So what’s the key here?  What was the turning point? It’s simple, really.  It was bringing industry, science and policy together, and uniting them with a common goal: to understand how communities and industries might be affected by ocean acidification, and to do something about it.  It happened in New Zealand and Washington, it’s happening in Maine and Maryland, and it needs to be happening everywhere.