Acidifying oceans a bad trip for marine ecosystems

A more acidic ocean under climate change threatens to reconfigure entire ecosystems by advantaging some fish species to the detriment of others, a new study has found. The research is one of only a few that go beyond the lab to study how species interactions are changing in nature under more extreme conditions.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide and the University of Hong Kong showed that a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the oceans, which reacts to turn seawater more acidic, favors common fish species, allowing them to double their populations. But that might also mean the downfall of rarer, subordinate competitors, leading to biodiversity loss and a total restructuring of fish communities, with numerous ecological impacts.

“For 10 to 20 years now, scientists have conducted lab experiments to understand how changes in seawater chemistry will affect individual marine organisms. These have been really useful, but they are inaccurate representations of nature,” says David Koweek, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, who was not involved in the research. “We have very little understanding about how ocean acidification causes shifts in organisms’ interactions and how these scale to create different outcomes for ecosystems and the resources people rely upon.”

The study, published in Current Biology Journal, looked at how ocean acidification might influence species interaction and how that might determine who thrives and who doesn’t. As species sharing the same waters interact, the disappearance of some could reverberate far along the food chain and destabilize ecosystems.

Understanding how ocean acidification affects biodiversity is important, as a rich variety of species, each with their specific roles in the environment, keeps ecosystems functioning and helps buffer against environmental changes.

“If there are more species, the network of their interactions is stronger and more resources are being used, making the community more robust to disturbances such as climate change,” said Ivan Nagelkerken, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Adelaide and lead author of the study.

Nagelkerken and his team spent three years analyzing fish communities around natural CO2 vents in shallow temperate reefs. Venting of carbon dioxide in the ocean happens naturally along faults and fractures in geologically active areas, usually volcanic ones. These vents release bubbles of CO2 that dissolve in the water in amounts similar to predicted CO2 concentration levels for the year 2100 (around 1,000 parts per million, according to some models), Nagelkerken said.

The study found that the number of species was lower around CO2 vents than in areas less rich in carbon (nine versus 14 species). Perhaps more importantly, the density of predator species – which play a key role in maintaining population levels among more common fish species – was 50 percent lower near CO2 vents, while the total density of fish was 1.5 times higher.

Community structures were significantly altered, as populations of dominant species such as the common triplefin (Forsterygion lapillum) and the crested blenny (Parablennius laticlavius) doubled in density, while those of subordinate species, such as the Yaldwin’s triplefin (Notoclinops yaldwyni) and blue-eyed triplefin (Notoclinops segmentatus), almost halved.

Alexandra Popescu, Mongabay, 17 October 2017. Full article.

1 Response to “Acidifying oceans a bad trip for marine ecosystems”

  1. 1 Lina Hansson 18 October 2017 at 14:41

    Note that the terminology used in this article is misleading. The definition of “acidic” in the Oxford English dictionary is “having the properties of an acid; having a pH of less than 7″. Despite the process of ocean acidification, the oceans are alkaline (pH higher than 7) and will not become acidic in the foreseeable future. Hence, “acid” or “acidic” should not be used when referring to seawater. Note that there are few exceptions, seawater can be acidic in the immediate vicinity of CO2 vents or in purposeful perturbation experiments.

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