News broke last week that a company called Island Scallops in British Columbia, Canada, had lost three years’ worth of business – 10 million scallops and $10 million. The CEO, Rob Saunders, identified ocean acidification as the culprit.
Now, there is rightly some attention to being paid to the mass shellfish die-offs in Canada. An oyster farm in the region has also come forward with tales of oyster deaths. The owner of the oyster farm was quoted in Canada’s Globe and Mail as saying, “It’s hard to say [what is causing these deaths] without having somebody there monitoring what’s going on.”
There’s a shift happening in the way scientists are thinking about how ocean acidification affects marine creatures. Originally, when researchers in the Southern Ocean watched the shells of tiny marine snails dissolve in high-carbon dioxide water, they suspected that similar animals with calcium carbonate shells and skeletons would most likely be harmed by ocean acidification. After all, this made intuitive sense: Ocean acidification means there is more carbon dioxide in the water, which lowers the water’s pH. All of this decreases the amount of carbonate ions in the ocean—the chemical building blocks found in animals’ shells. Wouldn’t decreases in these building blocks rob animals of the very things they need to build their shells?
Ocean acidification biological research has looked at this “building blocks” hypothesis for a while. Many excellent studies have shown that time after time, decreases in seawater carbonate ion levels are associated with decreases in shell building by corals, plankton, oysters, and more. But that clear relationship doesn’t hold for crabs and lobsters, even though they too have calcium carbonate in their shells. And different shell formers respond to different degrees of change. What’s going on?
The Internet is buzzing: A scallop farming business in British Columbia, Canada, has lost $10 million and 10 million scallops because of ocean acidification. Island Scallops’ CEO Rob Saunders’ despair came through crystal clear in his quotes: “I’m not sure we’re going to make it,” and “[Acidification] has really kicked the hell out of us.”
Saunders has been in the business for 35 years and has never seen anything like this. This is a shocking story for many – corrosive water because of carbon pollution single-handedly destroying a scallop business? It sounds eerily familiar to what Pacific Northwest hatchery owners in Washington and Oregon experienced in 2007 and 2008, when oyster larvae were dying by the billions. Whiskey Creek Hatchery and Taylor Shellfish Farms lost nearly 80 percent of their businesses due to increasingly acidic water.
Beautiful day for some science at #2014OSM. Photo: Sarah Cooley
Reading through the program for the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting, starting today in Honolulu, I’m like a hungry person at a buffet. But this isn’t just any buffet. Imagine the longest buffet table you’ve ever seen, loaded with all the dishes you love plus hundreds of interesting-looking new ones. Like that buffet table, this meeting program is packed with presentations about aspects of marine science I’ve always wanted to learn more about, and many that I’ve never thought of.
On my first read-through, I marked everything that looked interesting. And that wound up being about 300 talks, posters and plenary sessions over five days! I made the classic buffet eater’s mistake: My eyes are bigger than my stomach, or in this case, my brain. My selections range widely: Not only did I highlight every ocean acidification item, but I also highlighted things related to long-standing interests, like the nitrogen cycle and marine viruses. (Did you know there are viruses in the ocean? They attack the bacteria and other small creatures at the bottom of the ocean food web, and they’re really important in global carbon and nitrogen cycles!)
Hog Island Oyster Company has been in business for more than 30 years. Run by John Finger and Terry Sawyer, it is a family-owned business in Tomales Bay, Calif., that produces more than 3 million oysters annually, along with manila clams and mussels. John and Terry have the standard stresses and worries that come with operating a business, but when they talk about ocean acidification, you can tell their concern goes beyond the usual. Ocean acidification happens when carbon pollution from the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, turning the water more acidic. Animals like oysters, clams and mussels have trouble building their shells in increasingly acidic water, and this spells trouble for California oyster growers like John and Terry. Luckily, just down the road from Hog Island is Bodega Bay Marine Lab. John and Terry have partnered with ocean acidification scientists like Dr. Tessa Hill to help them monitor the coastal water where they grow their oysters. This allows Hog Island to respond to changing ocean chemistry in a way that doesn’t hurt their business.
The report says that the ocean is already 26 percent more acidic than it was prior to the Industrial Revolution. So what? Well, this increase in acidity has resulted in major losses at oyster farms, particularly in the Northwest. Taylor Shellfish and Whiskey Creek Hatchery had losses of up to 80 percent at their operations, before scientists figured out it was ocean acidification that made baby oysters (scientists would correct me and call it larvae) unable to grow their shells. Continue reading »
After months of travel across the Pacific, journalists Craig Welch and Steve Ringman unveiled the thorough and striking series of videos, photographs and interviews that underline just what ocean acidification will mean for people. Welch and Ringman capture a changing ocean, focusing on how increasing acidification will impact communities along the Pacific Rim including American crab and shellfish industries.
The iconic oyster industries on both the East and West coasts have been coping with the effects of ocean acidification for almost a decade now—and research is showing that crabs and other shell-forming species may be seeing direct impacts soon.
The species in the crosshairs are not only culturally relevant, but also economically valuable—supporting jobs and feeding millions. This is serious business for the United States and other nations that depend on a healthy ocean.