OP ED: Global warming could mean shell shock to local oysters

Soft-shell crab may be a delicacy, but how would you like a soft-shell oyster?

That’s what we may be trying to eat (and market) if there is a failure to limit the amount of carbon dioxide that is being put into the atmosphere. The connection between the two may not be obvious, but the conclusion will be. Let’s begin with a look at the role of oyster production in the Ocean State.

Rhode Island has a long history of commercial oyster production. In the early 1900s, oyster sales in our state topped $50 million each year in today’s dollars. However, by the middle of the 20th century, oyster production crashed due to a combination of factors, predominantly habitat loss, disease, natural disasters and turf conflicts with net fisheries. Oyster stocks are now being rebuilt, largely through aquaculture. In today’s markets, Rhode Island aquaculture is generating more than $1.5 million in annual revenue, 99 percent of which comes from oysters. Supporting industries such as fishing supply companies, boatyards and distributors receive revenues that exceed $4.3 million per year. This makes oysters an important crop that bolsters our economy and continues our long heritage in shellfish production.

But the oysters in Rhode Island’s waters are at risk. There is a surprising relationship between oyster production and carbon dioxide emissions. We have heard a lot about the hazards of global climate change, which is caused by excessive amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. Less has been said about the effect of CO2 on the ocean.

When CO2 mixes into the ocean, the seawater becomes more acidic. We’re not talking about turning seawater into battery acid, but even a small increase in acidity can make a big difference to marine life. This is because acidic seawater is corrosive to the shells of animals and that includes oysters. More CO2 in our oceans means slower growth, thinner shells (that make for easy predator pickings) and poor reproduction in shellfish.

Trisha Towanda, South Country Independent, 13 August 2009. Full article.

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