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.
Today, the X Prize Foundation will announce something truly groundbreaking: a competition, sponsored by Wendy Schmidt, to address ocean acidification. Can I tell you how excited this makes me? There are people sitting up and paying attention to acidification, to the threat it poses to the ocean, and to the people and businesses that rely on a healthy ocean, in a way that didn’t exist just a few years ago.
Ocean acidification is a big deal—some say it is one of the biggest challenges we face—an ever-changing ocean as a result of carbon pollution from factories, cars and power plants being absorbed by the ocean, turning it more acidic. This means that animals like oysters, clams and mussels have trouble building the very shells needed for their survival.
So as we struggle to reduce carbon pollution, what can be done on ocean acidification? We must rely on monitoring and research to inform science and local responses.
Fall is upon us, and with it comes a new season, new beginnings and new opportunities. The saying “hope springs eternal” evokes an entirely different season, but this autumn I’m feeling particularly excited and optimistic—and it has nothing to do with football. Great things are happening on ocean acidification, and this is an issue that I’m always happy to have something good to talk about.
State efforts to address this issue are essential. Ocean acidification is a global ocean health problem, caused by our increasing carbon emissions from factories, cars and power plants being absorbed by the ocean—but its impacts are local. Ocean acidification is putting American jobs and livelihoods at risk.
Seattle–one of my favorite cities. I first came here in 2006 and fell in love with Puget Sound, the strong smell of coffee and the surprisingly steep downtown streets that make my morning runs more challenging than I’m used to, given the gentle slopes of DC.
Today I’ve just attended an event at the beautiful Seattle Aquarium to hear Washington Governor Christine Gregoire announce the first ever state response to ocean acidification — a little-known threat that hit the Pacific Northwest shellfish industry like an invisible ton of bricks back in 2007 and now has top billing in Washington and across the country today.
Ocean acidification is what happens when significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the ocean. A chemical reaction is occurring in our oceans right now as our carbon emissions increase. Because of the amount of carbon pollution being absorbed by the ocean, its pH is lowered, turning it more acidic. The ocean is 25% more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
Donning our snorkel gear, my son and I entered the tranquil bay. We’d been looking forward to spring break in Baja Mexico and had read about this spot in the guide book. But we were soon disappointed; there were few fish to see and most of the coral was damaged or dead. The unsuspecting tourist might not notice but as a trained marine biologist I know what a healthy reef looks like. This wasn’t it.
Coral reefs are under assault. Overfishing and coastal development are partly to blame, but ocean acidification is an emerging threat to corals and a host of other species that rely on calcium carbonate for their shells. As CO2 increases in the atmosphere, it dissolves in the ocean and it is changing the very chemistry of the sea.