Oysters and acidification

Oysters, like many bivalves, are important for marine ecosystems. The organisms filter water through their feathered gills, removing impurities as they inhale and exhale. In fact, native and invasive bivalves might filter the entire volume of the San Francisco Bay every 3-4 days!

However, oysters around the world are threatened by ocean acidification. The acidity breaks down the calcium carbonate shells of the oysters, as we reported in a video several months ago.

Recently, researchers discovered other effects of acidification on oysters and what the breakdown of the oysters’ calcium carbonate shells could mean for the acidic balance. Science Today sat down with the Academy’s own oyster expert, Dr. Peter Roopnarine, curator and chair of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology, to get some perspective on these recent studies.

In the first study, published earlier this month, scientists reported that acidification has negative effects for oysters in the larval stage. The acidity in the water makes the larvae expend much more energy than in neutral waters to make their shells.

“As the oyster larvae struggle early on and expend that embryonic energy,” Roopnarine says, “they have difficulty cranking up their own feeding.”

According to the paper’s lead author, George Waldbusser, “It becomes a death race of sorts. Can the oyster build its shell quickly enough to allow its feeding mechanisms to develop before it runs out of energy from the egg? They must build their first shell quickly on a limited amount of energy—and along with the shell comes the organ to capture external food more effectively.”

Last month, headlines reported that “Oyster Shells are an Antacid to the Oceans,” based on a study of oyster reefs in Chesapeake Bay. Roopnarine explains how oyster reefs are built over time, “Oysters do best on hard ground. The first oysters in a soft bottom environment eventually become the hard substrate that future oysters build upon. As the reef grows, the presence of the shells promotes a healthy, low acidic environment.” Or as the study’s introduction states, “Active and dense populations of filter-feeding bivalves couple production of organic-rich waste with precipitation of calcium carbonate minerals, creating conditions favorable for alkalinity regeneration.”

On a micro-scale, like the Chesapeake Bay, Roopnarine agrees that this could work. Restoration of oyster reefs could contribute to the reduction of ocean acidification problems. On a macro-scale, over geological time and large ocean mass, however, it seems that these oyster reefs could do little to undo the large amounts of CO2 humans have been pumping into air (that’s absorbed by the oceans) for over a hundred years.

I asked Roopnarine about the San Francisco Bay’s oyster population. We had native oysters before overharvesting, pollution and sedimentation from gold mining in the Sierras buried the oyster reefs, Roopnarine says. A few are still found around the bay, but their numbers are small.

The oysters farmed locally are Japanese oysters, which, until a few years ago, were only found in hatcheries. Wild populations are now establishing themselves in the bay, Roopnarine says, which could be due to warmer temperatures. He and colleagues wrote a study a few years ago that looks at the Japanese oyster population locally.

With the important work these marine organisms do, it’s important we learn more about them to restore oyster reefs.

A former Academy staff-member, Jill Bible, is doing just this near Bodega Bay. To learn more watch this great video by the UC Communications team.

Molly Michelson, Science Today, 14 June 2013. Article.

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