Climate change harming shellfish

Rise in carbon dioxide cause ocean acidification, OSU researchers say. Greenhouse gases, air pollution, ozone layers — these are what most people think of during conversations about climate change. However, the atmosphere is not the only thing being affected by excess carbon dioxide. The earth’s oceans take up approximately 30 percent of all CO2 in the atmosphere, and as the burning of fossil fuels continues to increase, so does ocean acidity.

According to Oregon State University’s George Waldbusser, assistant professor in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry, ocean acidification is the process by which carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean, altering its acidity and corrosivity.

In recent years, ocean acidification has generated global consequences for aquatic wildlife. Waldbusser says that while the long term results of ocean acidification are difficult to predict, documented effects include changes in fish’s ability to swim, altered behavioral patterns and hindrance of the shell formation process of oysters and other shellfish.

With an abundance of west coast oyster growers dominating the shellfish market, the most recognizable effect thus far for humans, especially locally, has been the colossal impact on the oyster growing industry. When approximately a decade ago oyster growers began to take note of large scale failures in oyster seed production, the concept of ocean acidification was but a blip on the radar of environmental issues.

With such a large population of oyster farms in Oregon and Washington, research on ocean acidification has become crucial to preventing millions of dollars in lost revenue for the industry.

According to Waldbusser, monitoring oyster growth in hatcheries helped to single out ocean acidification as the culprit, and to find solutions to the problem.

“In those conditions, the hatchery has alleviated a lot of other potential issues such as predation, lack of food, and temperature. All those things are controlled, so really the only thing that was left was the CO2,” Waldbusser said. “Now that they’re actually chemically changing the CO2, much of the production failure has been resolved.”

OSU has been prominent in research on ocean acidification for years, with professors like Waldbusser at the forefront, studying the biological responses of aquatic wildlife and installing monitoring equipment in hatcheries along the entire west coast.

Waldbusser says his team of faculty and students is attempting to discover alternative options to buffering the water in hatcheries to reduce acidification.

“We’re now looking at some of the impacts once the oysters are out planted at the really young stages,” says Waldbusser, “and whether things like sea grasses might help to alleviate some of the impacts from the chemistry, or what the role of shell material might be in terms of buffering in the habitat specifically.”

Burke Hales, a professor in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry who works closely with Waldbusser, says a new project is beginning to take form to add new learning opportunities for the students of Oregon State.

The Marine Studies Initiative (MSI) is pitched as a new teaching and research model bridging OSU’s various marine science programs in order to increase awareness of the issues affecting coastal areas.

“It’s an effort to expand the educational resources out at Newport associated with the Hatfield Marine Science Center,” Hales said. “They’re in the planning and fundraising stages of this. Right now it’s quite early in the process.”

The new state-of-the-art facility will provide OSU students with an academic possibility that they haven’t seen before.

“It’s a big deal,” Hales explained. “We really have never had an oceanography degree. We’re one of the ten best oceanography programs in the world, but we don’t offer degrees to our undergraduates.”

Hales is enthusiastic about the potential of the MSI, and believes that it could create one of the best-in-the-field experiential learning opportunities in the world.

Oregon State’s contributions to ocean acidification research have also been extended to the political and professional levels. Waldbusser says he and others within his department have helped to bring ocean acidification to the attention of policy makers, as well as publishing both faculty and student research in scientific journals.

Waldbusser often invites students to participate in research projects alongside him. One student on Waldbusser’s team is entering her fifth year of ocean acidification research at OSU. Iria Gimenez, a fifth year student in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, has been working on projects involving oysters and mussels, observing the effects of ocean acidification on them from larval to adult stages.

“A lot of the projects we run in this lab are very big and collaborative,” Gimenez said.

Though the effects of ocean acidity may remain unbeknownst to many, OSU students and faculty are doing all they can to give the issue the limelight.

Waldbusser says he sees improvement in the public grasp of the severity of ocean acidification as it gains more traction in the media and conversations of climate change. However, he notes that the public relationship with the ocean’s changes differs greatly from that of workers in the seafood industry.

“It’s not something that we tend to observe as people,” says Waldbusser. “We still go to the ocean, we go swimming. It still looks the same as it did ten years ago. But, the people who are actually looking at these organisms every day and making a living on them often have an incredible wealth of knowledge and understanding of what’s happening.”

Whether the changes are noticeable or not, the planet is facing a huge increase in pollution that, according to Waldbusser, is essentially suffocating the earth.

“The chemical cycles on the earth are connected in many ways, and I often talk about how the ocean is basically the lungs of the planet,” Waldbusser explained. “They sort of breathe in and breathe out a lot of oxygen and CO2. And as we increase the atmospheric levels of CO2 that changes the ability of the ocean to breathe in some ways.”

Waldbusser notes that while some weather processes affecting the oceans are out of our hands, humans can—and must—focus on short and long term impacts of things like pollution runoff and the burning of fossil fuels.

“The public ultimately has to take some accountability,” says Waldbusser, “and take responsibility in the shared common resources that are here and how we value those.”

Julie Cooper, The Daily Barometer, 2 October 2015. Article.

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