Collaborative research on ocean acidification benefits Oregon

George Waldbusser, an assistant professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, found his interest in the ocean and environment years ago as an undergraduate at St. John’s University in New York.

“I worked on oyster recruitment as part of an effort to restore habitat around New York City,” Waldbusser said. “I ended up being a teacher’s assistant for a field course, and one of the people in the course didn’t know that Manhattan, where we were going to school, was an island. That was pretty astounding.”

Scientists and researchers often struggle to accurately convey their research findings to the public due to misinterpretation from both the press and the public. Now, as a professor, Waldbusser and his colleagues aim to improve public understanding of the environment and the role that oceanic organisms play in its maintenance. They also strive to solve issues plaguing various industries in Oregon and around the world.

In the past few years, shellfish hatcheries in Oregon have seen declining productivity from the shellfish populations. For answers, they reached out to researchers at Oregon State University.

“What is amazing about this project is that the shellfish hatcheries reached out to the scientists at Oregon State in order to understand why their production numbers were falling,” said Iria Gimenez, a graduate student in Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “Our work was being done for Oregon’s coastal community and ended up leading us to breakthrough findings regarding ocean acidification.”

These findings have directly impacted the economy of Oregon, as bivalves (such as oysters) clean water and provide habitat and food for many species in the ocean, not to mention humans. There has been extensive public interest in the role ocean acidification plays in bivalve health in the northwest, according to Waldbusser. He is currently a collaborator in a National Science Foundation-funded study of the role bivalve health plays in northwest culture, community and economy.

“Many tribes and many rural populations rely on shellfish production to create jobs,” Waldbusser said. “Ocean acidification affects the larvae of the shellfish by preventing proper development of their shell. We found that this was contributing to declining production of shellfish.”

The chemistry behind this issue was difficult to decode at first, so Waldbusser collaborated with Burke Hales, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences with a strong background in chemistry as well as geology.

“What we found in this study is that as carbon dioxide levels rise in the atmosphere, they rise in the ocean,” Hales said. “This forms carbonic acid, which reacts with basic species such as carbonate. Carbonate is a critical component in shell formation, and less carbonate in the ocean makes it difficult for shellfish to form their shells.”

Getting this message to the public has been difficult, according to Hales, Waldbusser and Gimenez. Their work gains a fair share of media attention due to its interconnectivity with climate change and rising carbon dioxide levels.

“It is important that the public realizes that ocean acidification is not the central issue, but rather the role rising carbon dioxide levels play in carbonate sequestration in the ocean,” Hales said. “We’re fired up about this, as people are looking at the wrong variable. pH of the ocean isn’t relevant so much as the fact that it is occurring due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide.”

Through interdisciplinary work and critical evaluation of the issues at hand, Waldbusser’s group has been able to uncover the key element at play and communicate that with both the shellfish growers of Oregon as well as the scientific community.

“If I can apply my science in an economically relevant way, it makes me feel even better about the work,” Gimenez said. “It took a lot of effort to get this done; these findings should be a wake-up call regarding how we impact these marine ecosystems.”

Justin Frost, The Daily Barometer, 13 January 2015. Article.

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