By: Jim Algar
West Coast shellfish growers and scientists, faced with increasing ocean acidification causing an oyster die-off, will get some help from the U.S. government, to the tune of $1.4 million, to study the problem.
Commercial oyster operations in the Pacific Northwest have been hard hit as increasing CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere are causing near-shore ocean waters to become more acidic, impacting the shell strength of oysters in the increasingly corrosive seawater.
Young oyster larvae can begin the process of building their shells within just 12 hours of fertilization, but acidic water causes them to have to devote more energy to shell building, leaving them with less energy for swimming in search of food, researchers say.
“The hatcheries call it ‘lazy larvae syndrome’ because these tiny oysters just sink in the water and stop swimming,” says George Waldbusser of Oregon State University, lead author of a paper appearing in the journal Nature Climate Change.
The larvae of both Pacific oysters and Mediterranean mussels have a hard time forming their calcium carbonate shells as the surrounding seawater becomes more acidic, researchers have found.
It only takes a very minute change in water chemistry to interfere with the oysters’ ability to properly grow a shell, Waldbusser says.
“These organisms have really sensitive windows to ocean acidification — even more sensitive than we thought,” he says.
To help study the problem and hopefully improve the situation, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is stepping forward with a 3-year research grant worth $1.4 million.
Oregon State University Professor Burke Hales, who has developed an instrument that can detect subtle chemical changes in ocean waters, will lead the project.
Shellfish growers will be instructed in how to monitor acidification levels in the ocean, and will work with Hales and other West Coast researchers in an effort to create more affordable, accurate sensors to do so.
The grant will also help them develop ways to adapt their oyster and mussel farming businesses in the face of increasingly carbon-dioxide-saturated ocean waters.
NOAA’s grant is the latest effort in the agency’s continuing mission to combat the damaging effects carbon dioxide levels are having on marine life.
Earlier this year, it announced it was launching a web-based tool people can use to track ocean acidification along the U.S. West Coast.