NOAA to launch month-long acidity research

Starting Monday, anyone with Internet access can follow along as researchers work to understand the chemical changes in the ocean and their impacts on sea life like oysters and clams.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will launch its research vessel Fairweather Monday from Seattle for a month-long cruise down the Pacific Coast, where it will analyze changes in ocean acidification since its last trip in 2007. Along the way, researchers will update followers through blogs and posts to Facebook and Twitter.

“Over the past two or three decades, oceanographers have found that the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — have released about 2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and about a quarter of that has been absorbed by the oceans,” said mission co-chief Richard Feely of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Research Laboratory in Seattle. “We originally thought that this was a good thing because it reduced the impact of CO2 relative to climate change and changing temperatures by the uptick of that carbon dioxide, but we now have learned in the last decade or so that there is a very strong impact of that carbon dioxide on our ocean ecosystems,” especially on shellfish.

In the Pacific Northwest, the shellfish industry is responsible for 3,200 jobs, primarily in coastal communities, and $111 million in regional economic activity, according to NOAA’s ocean acidification project.

Local impact

Trouble has been brewing in the commercial shellfish industry for a long time, local growers say. Brady Engvall of Brady’s Oysters near the Elk River estuary between Aberdeen and Westport has been in the oyster business on Grays Harbor since 1970, and said they’ve had issues with oyster larvae for more than 20 years. Now they can’t find larvae from wild sources reliably anymore, he said and instead all their oyster larvae, or seed, comes from hatcheries.

“Ocean acidification has caused some problems,” Engvall said. “In the hatchery program, we buy larvae from hatcheries, and we set the larvae on shell from our own facility. The problem is when you have acidification, it makes it difficult for the hatcheries to produce high quality, consistent seed. The batch you get may not be as good as the batch you got before, and maybe the next batch will be OK. It’s a real headache to get good larvae over the course of a season.”

Even hatcheries aren’t immune from the effects. In April 2012, researchers determined a drop-off in oyster seed production at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery on Netarts Bay in Oregon was the result of ocean acidification, according to a release from the National Science Foundation. Most hatcheries use seawater, and when it’s too acidic, it can prevent larvae from developing their shells.

Brady’s Oysters uses millions of larvae every season, Engvall said. The exact impacts of switching to hatchery larvae and the overall effects of ocean acidification are hard to put a dollar figure on, he said.

“It’s hard to quantify. The science is not settled yet. You could be impacted a lot or you could be impacted a little from year to year, you don’t really know. We’re just flying by the seat of our pants most of the time,” Engvall said.

Sources of acidity

“It’s very interesting, about 60 percent of the acidification we see, based on previous cruises, is due to the upwelling process itself, about 20 percent is due to that additional amount of CO2 from anthropogenic (man-made) sources, and there’s another 20 percent that’s due to local respiration processes in the water,” Feely said.

Upwelling is a seasonal ocean process where deeper waters, which naturally contain more carbon dioxide, well up to the surface, affecting the surface water’s acidity.

Trying to reduce that level will be a long process, and there aren’t currently strategies for dealing with acidity in large bodies of water. That’s one of the things researchers hope to change.

“Of course the most important response is to mitigate as much as we possibly can the amount of carbon dioxide that’s released into the atmosphere and taken up by the oceans. In addition to that, we can develop capabilities to help the shellfish growers to adapt to these changes as much as we possibly can,” he said.

That could include anything from showing growers how to monitor acidity so they can control when they’re adding water to tanks, to using seagrasses that naturally absorb carbon dioxide, to treating bays or harbors electrochemically to change the pH balance.

“We need to expand the amount of water we know how to protect, and that’s what a lot of this pending research is about,” said Brad Warren, director of Global Ocean Health Partnership. “I often think of this as being the equivalent of turning on the lights in a room where you’re being hit by people, and you can’t see the fists coming. You can’t duck. You can only duck when you can see them coming. And once you can see what’s coming you can begin to fight back and duck and stay out of trouble and figure out how to respond.”

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