August 11, 2014

Will Oysters Share the Same Fate as the Wicked Witch of the West?

Posted by Fushcia Hoover

By Fushcia Hoover

WASHINGTON, DC – Oceans. You don’t have to live on the East or West coasts to understand and appreciate the appeal of the oceans. From long walks on the beach to collecting seashells, images of the oceans proliferate our media, romantic literary epics, and vacation planning. However, that is all changing as our oceans increase in acidity. To put it simply, like the wicked witch of west, invertebrates like oysters, mussels, and other shelled creatures are “melting”.

A Discovery Is Made

In 2008, shellfish hatcheries across the coast started noticing a drastic decline in the yield of their shellfish from larvae to young adulthood. A recent article out of the Washington Post interviewed one hatchery owner in Washington on the issue. From 2006 to 2007, Bill Taylor’s Taylor Shellfish hatchery saw peaks of 7 billion larvae, but just a year later that number had decreased by 50 percent and by 2009, was at one-third of the peak production level. At a 15 June 2014 Ocean acidification hearing, Bill Mook, owner of a Mook Sea Farm in Maine, told a similar story of declining larvae production. Both hatcheries on opposite coasts came to the same conclusion: the water had an increase in acidity while the calcium carbonate, which is vital for shell building, was declining. What they didn’t realize was that these high levels of acidity were the result of increasing carbon (CO2) emissions in the atmosphere.

Acidity is measured using a system called pH, which ranges from 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acidic and 14 the most basic. Ocean pH values are strongly influenced by the amount of CO2 present in the atmosphere, which in turn influences the level of absorbed CO2 in the ocean at the surface. According to a report released in June from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the oceans absorb one quarter of all CO2 emissions per year, and since the 1900’s, atmospheric CO2 has risen by 40 percent. Once the emissions are absorbed, they react with the water (H2O) to form a carbonic acid (H2CO3) which increases acidity in the water. This increase in acidity has started breaking down the shells of shellfish in addition to making it more difficult for these creatures to form their shells during early stages in their development, resulting in delayed or stunted growth, shell mutations, and declined shell strength or hardness.

Dissolving shell

Experiment showing the slow melting of a sea butterfly shell in increasing levels of acidity over 45 days. Credit: David Littschwager/National Geographic Society

Ocean Acidification in the Future

This information alone is concerning, but through a process called upwelling we have even more reason for concern. The Post article explains upwelling as the process of ocean surface water being pushed deep into the ocean, only to rise to the surface decades later. Based on this process, the current levels of acidity are the result of atmospheric conditions over 50 years ago. It will be another 50 to 100 years before we will see the effects of acidity from today’s CO2 emissions. This will have large impacts on both coasts for the fishery industry, tourism, and related economies. U.S. fisheries are a $5 billion industry per year, with summer fishery yields accounting for $27 million alone, according to Dr. Beth Phelan, Supervisory Research Fishery Biologist for NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, who spoke at a House of Representatives ocean acidification briefing. Director of Brand marketing for Trip Advisor Maura Welch indicated that on their site images of oceans sell and receive more traffic nine out of ten times more frequently than an image of a forest or non-ocean scape. At the 2013 AGU Science Policy Conference, Dr. Lora Fleming, professor and director of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, presented her work on the connection between mental and emotional human health and oceans, which further emphasizes the importance of protecting the ocean ecosystems from ocean acidification.

So what’s being done to combat this serious issue?

Fear not! Some members of congress are already acting to push legislation through to address ocean acidification. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced H.R.4692, the Coastal Communities Acidification Act of 2014, in May. The resolution, which has since been sent to the Subcommittee on the Environment under the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, would establish a commission to the social and economic risks associated with ocean acidification. That same month, Congressman Derek Kilmer of Washington introduced H.R.4732, the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act of 2014. Referred to the same committee, this bill would allow ocean acidification research programs to hold prized-based competitions to inspire new innovations and technologies aimed at targeting acidification reduction in our oceans. Congressional members from California and Oregon to New York and Pennsylvania have signed on to Representative Kilmer’s bill.

There are many ways that you can get involved as well! You can do your part by:

  1. Contacting your representative and asking them to support either or both of these bills.
  2. Educating yourself to learn more about the process of ocean acidification and educating others.
  3. Reducing your own carbon footprint (there are some fun and free calculators to try out to get you started, here and here).

Tip: If you decide to go with number one on that list, be sure to visit AGU’s Contact Your Legislator webpage for help on scheduling a meeting and more! Now is a great time to act since Congress is on recess and will be listening closely to you, the constituents.

Fushcia Hoover is an intern with the Public Affairs Department at AGU.