The Blog Aquatic » ocean acidification News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Video: Ocean Acidification – A Threat to Economies and Cultures Around the World Thu, 21 Aug 2014 12:37:16 +0000 Alexis Valauri-Orton

Over these past three months, my blog series has taken you around the world and into the lives of marine dependent communities at risk from ocean acidification.  Hopefully this journey did for you what it did for me: showed how ocean acidification has the power to alter whole communities, and how these communities are in dire need of research, guidance and infrastructure to prepare for the challenges ahead.

Before I leave Ocean Conservancy, I want to share one more thing.  I have prepared this video to help make the stories I’ve shared in my blog come alive.  Listen to Waiaria talk about the value of shellfish to the identity of people in New Zealand.  Watch fishermen in Peru celebrate El Dia de Pescadores. Tag along as a shellfish farmer in Thailand hand dredges the bay in the middle of the night.  See the faces and the places that continue to drive my conviction that we have more work to do.  And share them with your friends, so we can do good on what Peter, a cod-fisherman in Norway who can trace fishing back 1,000 years in his family, said to me:

“The whole world has to know. Not only in this small place, but the whole world has to know what is happening.”

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Ocean Acidification Wrecks Sharks’ Smellovision Wed, 20 Aug 2014 21:06:23 +0000 Sarah Cooley

Scarier than any movie shark that can smell a drop of blood miles away (they can’t, by the way) is this week’s news about sharks’ sense of smell. A team of Australian and American scientists has just shown that smooth dogfishes (also called dusky smooth-hound sharks) can’t smell food as well after living in ocean acidification conditions expected for the year 2100. These “future” sharks could correctly track food smells only 15% of the time, compared to a 60% accuracy rate for unexposed sharks.  In fact, the acidification-exposed sharks even avoided food smells!

This surprising result is also pretty sobering, when you consider how important sharks’ sense of smell is to nearly everything they do. Sharks have especially large, complex “nose” organs, which help them find food, mates, and predators, as well as find their way around the oceans. Many sharks, including the smooth dogfish, are very active at night and in the deep, dark ocean, so their sense of smell provides critical information about their surroundings. The researchers note that the sharks’ damaged sense of smell is probably due to the same changes in neurotransmitters reported in coral reef clownfish (yes, Nemo) that love the smell of predators in an acidifying ocean.

Despite their mighty reputation, sharks are under threat from overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss. Sharks that also can’t find food or avoid predators will probably not survive long, causing even more trouble for shark populations. They grow and reproduce slowly, too, meaning that sharks that die young aren’t replaced quickly. Scientists still don’t know yet if the smooth dogfish can adapt over several generations to improve their odds against the ocean acidification we will see over the coming decades, but it doesn’t look good.

Smooth dogfishes live along coasts from Maine to Florida, around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and along the southeastern coast of South America. They might benefit somewhat from the actions that East Coast states like Maine and Maryland are taking against ocean acidification, but as species that migrate long distances, our best bet is to cut carbon dioxide emissions globally.

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What Does Ocean Acidification Mean for our Coasts? Thu, 07 Aug 2014 12:30:35 +0000 Sarah Cooley

This post is a collaboration between Sarah Cooley, Ph.D. (Ocean Conservancy) and Meredith White, Ph.D. (Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences).

As we dig deeper into how ocean acidification will affect our oceans, many scientists are also starting to talk about how it affects our coasts. This is a new focus for scientists and one ripe for new learning. In this post, we will give you a window into the coastal factors that are driving acidification and the solutions at hand.

Here’s how it breaks down. When people refer to ‘ocean acidification,’ they are usually talking about changes in water chemistry that happen when the ocean takes up carbon pollution from fossil fuels.  Scientists can see this very clearly at study sites in the middle of the ocean, far away from land. But, ocean acidification is having an impact closer to shore as well. The impacts from acidification to West Coast oyster growers and the losses they suffered are well-known. It’s one of the reasons East Coast states are deciding to act. Just last week, a Maine commission held its first meeting to figure out what the state can do about acidification. Maryland’s task force meets this week. Much of their focus will be on the near-shore drivers of acidification.

Absorption of carbon pollution from the atmosphere isn’t the only thing that affects seawater acidity.  In coastal areas, differences in the makeup or amount of river discharge and heavy pollution from land (e.g., stormwater and agricultural run-off) also change water acidity. Most rivers naturally increase seawater acidity and worsen ocean acidification. Other activities can make things worse by increasing runoff (e.g., from a large parking lot or by melting glaciers) or by changing the natural balance of rock particles carried in the river (e.g. erosion from development projects). These rivers then acidify the coastal ocean at higher rates than before. In addition, fertilizer pollution or sewage runoff can cause huge algae blooms. In the worst case, some of the blooms could be toxic, similar to what has impacted Toledo, Ohio’s water supply over the last four days. When the algae die, they release huge amounts of extra carbon dioxide that also acidify the water. Recent research shows that this makes the water even less able to naturally balance out these disruptions.

In the past few years scientists have started to focus on coastal factors that worsen acidification, as our ability to measure these changes near the shore has grown.  When we started working on ocean acidification about eight years ago, coastal issues weren’t really a focus for the ocean acidification community. But now, addressing these coastal factors is a key part of dealing with ocean acidification. Communities have a lot of options available to them, starting with local actions like reducing coastal pollution and wisely managing polluted runoff. While these coastal factors are critical, they are just a first step. To fully address ocean acidification, we will also need to reduce the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere. By taking care of our coasts and keeping the big picture of reducing carbon in mind, we can ensure that our oceans are healthy and productive.

Meredith White, Ph.D. has been a postdoctoral researcher at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences since March 2013. Her research focuses on biological impacts of ocean acidification, and she is serving as a member of Maine’s Commission on acidification. She is particularly fond of marine invertebrates, and she has a knack for spotting lobster art with the wrong number of legs. Follow her at @CoastalMer and 

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Science in the hands that need it: Turning the tide on ocean acidification in New Zealand Fri, 01 Aug 2014 16:55:30 +0000 Alexis Valauri-Orton

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.

Mussel farms fill the waters of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds. These fine-meshed nets are designed to catch wild spat, or mussel seed, in the Marlborough Sounds.  Mussel farmers I spoke with complained of an inconsistent supply of natural spat in recent years.  New monitoring programs in the Marlborough Sounds will allow us to see the chemical conditions of these crucial spat-collection areas. A family-owned mussel boat utilizes specialized ropes and hydraulic equipment. Though these technologies save sweat and increase production yields, they are hugely expensive, often requiring families to invest everything they have into their farm equipment. A woman collects data on bio-fouling on mussel lines in the Marlborough Sounds.  The coming years will likely see an influx in ocean acidification research in the Marlborough Sounds. Even small operations, like this oyster boat in Stewart Island, utilize expensive technology.  The owners of this boat have not seen natural reproduction in the oysters they work with in three years. ]]> 0
Alaska in the Spotlight: Supporting Communities Facing the Big Risks From Ocean Acidification Tue, 29 Jul 2014 15:15:31 +0000 Sarah Cooley

The total risk of Alaska’s boroughs and census areas from ocean acidification. Red areas are at highest risk, while blue areas are at lowest risk. Population size (circles), commercial harvest value (dollar sign size), and subsistence fishing significance (fish icon size) contribute to the total risk. Reprinted from Progress in Oceanography.

We know that some people will be more at risk than others as a result of ocean acidification. We have seen this with oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest.  Scientists are now trying to determine what puts certain regions at greater risk than others from ocean acidification. Before I came to Ocean Conservancy, I helped lead a study on this question for Alaska, and it’s just been published in Progress in Oceanography this week.

My coauthors and I found that many of southwest and southeast Alaska’s boroughs and census areas (similar to counties or parishes in other states) face social and economic risk from ocean acidification – namely, many of the foods they eat and sell for income, all coming from the sea, are threatened by changes in the ocean’s chemistry.

A number of factors combine to elevate risk in certain regions of Alaska. The unique oceanography that makes Alaska’s coastal oceans productive also makes them more susceptible to acidification. Commercial and recreational fisheries that rely heavily on crabs and clams—species that are more likely to be hurt by acidification—pose serious economic risk to both individuals and industry. Many of Alaska’s coastal residents feed themselves by harvesting crabs and clams, which means that they may face food security risks as their private harvests decline. And some risk doesn’t even come from the ocean at all. It comes from factors like low incomes, few industries, scarce jobs, limited education, and the high cost of imported foods that are common throughout many parts of Alaska.

By adding all of these factors together, our study showed that southeastern and southwestern Alaska face the greatest overall risk (see figure). At the same time, other factors like nutrient pollution from land, overfishing, and ice melting add stress to marine ecosystems and worsen the effects of ocean acidification.

Now that we know which areas could be hit hardest in Alaska and why, we can start to prevent future losses from ocean acidification. Since the main cause of ocean acidification is atmospheric carbon dioxide, we all need to work towards cutting emissions. But that will take time and many partnerships across the nation. While we work towards that, we can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities against ocean acidification by making them stronger from within.

Programs that help educate Alaska’s residents, attract a greater array of job opportunities, and improve access to affordable, nutritious food will help these communities avoid depending too heavily on natural resources that could disappear. We can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities with environmental stewardship efforts that decrease nutrient pollution, overfishing, and ice melting. Even though ocean acidification seems like an insurmountable problem that lies beyond individual actions, studies like this show that small actions, added up, can decrease the overall risk of communities from global changes like ocean acidification.

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Sight and Smell: How Traditional Methods Won’t Hold up Against Ocean Acidification Fri, 25 Jul 2014 12:13:06 +0000 Alexis Valauri-Orton

Ocean acidification is invisible to the naked eye.  It’s not something we can smell, not something we can feel with our fingers.  But in many parts of the world, that’s just how fishermen and shellfish farmers assess the water they work in.

Right now, the methods we have to understand and respond to ocean acidification are expensive, requiring a lot of equipment.  For example, oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest rely on ocean monitoring systems that tell them the condition of the water, high-tech hatcheries that give them a controlled environment in which to rear their oysters, and buffering systems that allow them to neutralize the water coming in and make it suitable for oyster growth.

For shellfish farmers who are worried about making a profit at the end of the day, it can be impossible to foot the bill for expensive technologies like these.  That’s where government support comes in. The oyster farmers of Oregon and Washington State were able to build their defenses against ocean acidification with help from the federal government, which directed half a million dollars to the development of these monitoring and adaptation systems.

In many places I visited, however, government support was limited and these important technologies were nowhere to be found.

In Ban Don Bay, the hub of shellfish farming in Thailand, I sat on a wooden long-tail boat at peak clam harvesting hours: 1 – 4 am.  Why the middle of the night?  Because that’s when the tide is low enough to dredge the mud flats by hand.  A young man single-handedly hauled a steel cage up onto the boat, dumping out the clams that had been dredged from the farmed-flats below.  He threw the empty cage overboard, while an older man steered the boat ahead.  The cage dragged along the bottom for a few minutes until the young man tugged on the rope again to haul the harvests on board.

Thousands of shellfish farmers work the mudflats of Ban Don Bay.  But they rely entirely on natural seed, having no hatchery to supply them.  Many farmers told me of how they had observed changes in the water—an increase in algal blooms, changes in the smell and color of the water—but they didn’t understand these changes, and had no way of knowing what caused them. Jintana Nugranad, a Senior Fisheries Biologist working within the Thai Government, told me of how she had fought to maintain a shellfish hatchery and expand monitoring efforts to support the industry in Thailand through scientific research on shellfish and seed production, but received no support in her efforts.

This was the case for much of the scallop industry in Peru as well.  Farmers collect natural seed from an island near Sechura Bay.  There are a few privately-operated hatcheries in the bay, but so far none of them have equipment to monitor the chemistry of their intake water, or to modify the chemistry of that water if it proves too acidic for their scallops to grow.  Scallop farmers were hopeful, however, that the government and private sector would support the development of hatcheries throughout the country.

In Hong Kong, oyster farmers told me how they hope for similar support from their government.  They work in Lau Fau Shan, in the Northwest corner of Hong Kong’s New Territories.  The region is famous for its oysters, and the only place in Hong Kong where oysters are still grown.  One of the farmers, Mr. Chan, explained to me that the hyper-capitalist structure of Hong Kong means there is little support or services provided for primary industries like his.  He pointed to China, just across the bay, and told me of how shellfish farmers there receive government support to invest in advanced technology.  But in Hong Kong, he told me, “e He pointed  The way we farm oysters is very backwards. We rely on traditional knowledge that has been handed down for maybe 2,000 years.  It is not scientifically advanced.”  He told me of how they use the moon to time their farming activities and smell the water to determine its quality.

Time and again, Mr. Chan told me of how he wished to have access to more advanced technologies.  “Can you help me?” he asked.  “Can you teach us what they do in America?”

Given how many environmental pressures these shellfish farmers face, ranging from industrial and agricultural runoff to changes in temperature and frequency of algal blooms, it’s remarkable that they have been able to survive in the industry.  But ocean acidification is a powerful and complex threat.  It cannot be seen without the help of technology, and it affects every drop of water surrounding these shellfish.  Without access to monitoring equipment to determine what is happening and where, and with limited resources and access to technology that may allow for adaptation, it will be very difficult for these shellfish industries to survive.

It is therefore critical that we expand research efforts to improve our understanding of ocean acidification as well as our methods for addressing it.  This is exactly what NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program is doing, but the program needs more funding to accomplish its goals.  Support our petition to increase funding for NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program.

A man dumps a bucket of water over clams he has just dredged from the bottom of Ban Don Bay, in Thailand.  He harvests when the tide is lowest—in this case, in the middle of the night. Bamboo stakes mark the edge of shellfish farming beds in Ban Don Bay.  Some farmers sleep in wooden stilt houses at night. An oyster farmer from Surat Thani, home of Ban Don Bay, shows off his prize for having the highest quality of oysters in the region. A man and his wife smile as they sell their oysters at the local market near Ban Don Bay Juan is the manager of one of Peru’s only scallop hatcheries.  He doesn’t have the equipment to take high quality pH measurements in his hatchery. Mr. Chan pulls a string of oysters up from his bamboo rafts in Deep Bay, between Hong Kong and China. A man returns from harvesting oysters in Deep Bay. ]]> 0
The Thing You Can’t Measure: Ocean Acidification Threatens Culture and Identity in New Zealand Fri, 18 Jul 2014 14:55:46 +0000 Alexis Valauri-Orton

Photo: Alexis Valauri-Orton

These last two weeks, I have shared stories of how ocean acidification could affect economies around the world. These tangible impacts can be measured by changes in jobs, access to resources and overall economic condition. But what about the impacts you can’t measure? What will those changes be, and how will they affect people?

Throughout my Watson Fellowship, I sought to understand these intangible impacts. These hard-to-measure threats to things like one’s sense of place, identity and culture may not have dollar signs behind them, but to many of the people I spoke with, they were of utmost importance.

To explain this, I will share what I learned about the value of marine resources in New Zealand. There are two strong cultural lineages in New Zealand – the indigenous Maori community, and the descendants of Western settlers, who came primarily from England. Despite their distinct backgrounds, my conversations with both groups came to the same conclusion: the availability of seafood in New Zealand, particularly shellfish, is a matter of identity. If that seafood is gone, then the identity of the entire country suffers.

In the Maori language, the words for generosity and the courtyard of the meeting house are the same: marae. Waiaria Rameka, a shellfish biologist working in Tauranga, New Zealand, told me that each marae in New Zealand is known for a particular food item. This food item is a source of pride for each marae, and in a showing of generosity, it is always served for guests of the marae.

For many marae in New Zealand, this treasured food is a species of shellfish. These treasured species, are “not just a form of food [for Maori people], they’re who they are,” Waiaria told me. This references the concept of “mana,” a Maori term which Waiaria defined as “a person’s being, or energy.” This energy, she explained, comes not just from you, but from your ancestors before you. The strength of you or your tribe’s mana depends on the strength of your culture and traditions.

Waiaria told me how the availability of a marae’s treasured species affects their mana, saying, “If we can provide [that food] on the table, that means our mana as a people is upheld and preserved.  If we can’t provide [that food] then our mana is degraded.” Because the strength of your mana comes from the lineage before you, a breakdown of a long tradition like serving shellfish to visitors breaks an important link, and therefore poses significant harm to your mana.

For the descendants of Western settlers in New Zealand, shellfish and other types of seafood are also a matter of identity. Jim Barett, an oyster farmer from Stewart Island, New Zealand, told me of how his ancestors saw hope for a new life in New Zealand. In England, he explained, “Only the wealthy had access to resources.” And so when the settlers came to New Zealand, “they saw a land of plenty and allowed free access to it.” All beaches in New Zealand are public, and under their fisheries management programs, each citizen has a personal daily allotment of fish and shellfish. Keep in mind, the population of New Zealand is only 4.5 million, compared to 318 million in the United States. Their fisheries sector is strictly managed, and when you combine a well regulated fisheries sector with a small population size, there are abundant resources remaining for non-commercial use.

When I asked Jim what he wanted for his children and the next generation, he said, “I’d like [them] to be able to carry on doing what I did. To go and get a feed of shellfish or fish whenever they want.” He told me this was something all New Zealanders feel; “We feel we have a birth right, to be able to go down to the beach and catch a feed. It’s a very, very important part of our culture.”

His thoughts were echoed in nearly all conversations I had with New Zealanders. They all talked about this “right” to the resources of the sea, and the importance of preserving the abundance of those resources. At the Our Ocean Conference, I sat next to Shane Jones, New Zealand’s Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, during lunch. I told him of how every New Zealander I spoke with talked about their right to catch a feed at the beach, and the need to protect fisheries and preserve that right. He chuckled and said, “That’s absolutely right.”

Though the fishing industry has a strong economic presence in New Zealand, the economy was never the focus of my conversations there. Each person, whether young or old, male or female, Maori or European, returned to the value of an abundant sea, and in particular an abundant source of shellfish. The value of this abundance was never told in dollars, but as a matter of identity.

New Zealand was not the only place I visited with an identity entwined with the sea, and shellfish in particular. The $3 bill of Aitutaki has a sea snail shell on the front, and one of the regional slogans of Thailand’s Surat Thani is “huge oysters.” Though the value of shellfish and other marine resources as a source of pride or identity may be hard to measure, I came to see that it was a critical part of the story of how ocean acidification will affect people.

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