Ocean acidification on the half shell: an SMEA student’s experience running the “boring” booth at a seafood festival

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting behind a table covered in bottles of sea water, pH-test kits, and posters with pictures of pitted and dissolving snail shells. I had a coffee in one hand and a bowl of steamed clams and mussels in the other. As I looked around at the booths next to mine, I spotted a family with two kids. I smiled and asked “would you like to do a science experiment?” The two kids glanced at my booth, then looked away and walked with their parents toward the ice cream stand.

For the last two years, SMEA has hosted a booth about ocean acidification at the Hama Hama Oyster Rama festival on Hood Canal. Ocean acidification is a pressing environmental issue, and it involves the decline in ocean pH due to increased carbon dioxide dissolving into the ocean. This drop in pH reduces shell-building organisms’ ability to remove calcium carbonate from the water, which in turn weakens their shells. A group of students from one of our classes presents information about this serious environmental problem in the form of a short activity in which participants test the pH of seawater, then blow bubbles into the water to see how the added carbon dioxide changes the indicator from basic blue to acidic yellow. This activity is aimed at kids visiting the Oyster Rama with their families, and fits into the event’s goal of educating the public about shellfish ecology and aquaculture.

Even though we understood our role within the larger event, I couldn’t help but feel a little out of place. The beautiful weather, upbeat music, and festival atmosphere didn’t match up with the bleak picture we were painting with our pH demonstration. Excited families who were there to pick oysters off the beach and enjoy delicious seafood often seemed bemused by our dark message of the struggle of larval oysters in an acidic ocean. We may have hidden this message in a game and praised their children for doing a great job as a “scientist,” but the parents’ body language still suggested that our gloomy booth did not fit with the spirit of the festival.

Despite our low participation rate, and despite the children and parents who seemed unaffected by our ocean acidification spiel, running this booth at the Oyster Rama reminds me how important it is to communicate science at these events. For all the people we did not reach, there were some with whom we had good discussions about how this issue affects oyster farmers in Washington. One girl who ran through our experiment toward the end of the day was both delighted by the color change from the pH test and fascinated by our explanation of what this chemical change means for shellfish. She was engaged from start to finish, and when she walked away I felt we had achieved our mission for the day. We had the opportunity to challenge ourselves with explaining a complex subject to a younger audience, and perhaps that last kid will be inspired to pursue science in the future.

Being an educational booth at a festival is a difficult challenge, but at the end of the day, it’s an important opportunity to impart knowledge about the environment to a new audience. It is a good opportunity to take advantage of a well-attended event, and a chance to show people how to protect the shellfish they love so much. When I attend the event next year as a regular guest, I’ll be sure to swing by the SMEA booth to try my hand as an ocean chemist.

Danielle Edelman, Currents – a student blog. University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, 21 May 2018. Blog post.

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