Scientists at the East Boothbay facility are studying the adaptability of key Gulf of Maine species.
EAST BOOTHBAY — As time machines go, Nichole Price’s conjures up more of a plumbing experiment than a steampunk Hollywood vision of, say, H.G. Wells’ words. But in the bowels of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, she’s working on a plan to send Bangs Island mussels into the future.
It’s a tough future, specifically one in which the chemistry of the ocean is changing so rapidly – warming and becoming far more acidic – that some species face extinction, and species that humans rely on for food, and their livelihood, are in jeopardy.
Price, a benthic marine ecologist and senior research scientist at Bigelow, is the director of the Center for Venture Research for Seafood Solutions. The work she’s doing this summer is the continuation of her research on how kelp farms might help mussels fight the negative impacts of ocean acidification.
As global carbon dioxide production has continued to climb over the last century-plus, it’s had an impact on both sky and sea. In the atmosphere, it causes a spike in temperatures. But a lot of it goes into the ocean, and as it dissolves there, it creates higher levels of acidity in the water. The combination of warmer and increasingly acidified waters is said to threaten some of Maine’s most important marine resources. The impacts include shellfish such as mussels, soft-shell clams and oysters having trouble developing strong shells, and another with major economic impacts, the possibility that lobsters will migrate farther northeast and offshore to cooler – and Canadian – waters. In terms of dollar value, Maine lobster landings in 2017 represented 76 percent of the $569 million dollar Maine seafood industry.
Upstairs, David Fields, another senior research scientist at Bigelow who has been at the lab for 14 years, is focusing on sending baby lobsters into that same warmer, more acidic future. Both of them can also take their experiments back in time, to a pre-Industrial Age, long before we started worrying about greenhouse gases.
Fields’ specialty is copepods, a keystone species that serve as food for fish, zooplankton and whales, and the research he’s done on Arctic and sub-Arctic species of copepods suggests that their ability to produce fats (which makes them a better food source) will be jeopardized by both increasing temperatures and ocean acidification. His findings suggest
that copepods may be better able to handle acidification; they’re in more trouble from warming waters. He’s currently applying similar research to lobster.
But the ocean is changing at alarming rates. Around 1880, Fields said, the carbon levels in the ocean would have been about 290 parts per million. In 2010, when he and Bigelow Laboratory colleague Barney Balch were working on that grant application to study copepods in a warming, more acidic ocean, he said the level of carbon in the ocean was up to 386 parts per million. Their funding came through in 2012.
As of this June, carbon levels were up to 410 parts per million, according to NASA, Fields said.
“The change is happening so fast that it is really a fantastic time to be a scientist,” he said. A few feet away, a master’s student from the University of Maine, Maura Niemisto, was handling tiny lobster, barely big enough to be seen by the naked eye. They’d been born three days before and Niemisto was trying to figure out what the minimum amount of food was that they needed before they began to starve.
“And a horrible time to be a citizen,” Fields added. “We are seeing in our lifetime changes that wouldn’t normally happen for thousands of years.”
But in terms of the results both he and Price have seen so far, there may be cause for hope, both in the way these creatures handle these changing waters on their own and the way human beings might be able to help them.
KELP WITH A SIDE OF MUSSELS
Price has been at Bigelow four years. When she came for her interview, the owner of the bed and breakfast where she stayed in Boothbay asked her about her research. She told him she was a coral reef ecologist with an interest in kelp aquaculture. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been working with the sewage facility down here in Boothbay to figure out how to use kelp to soak up extra nutrients.’ ”
“I was like, this is not a scientist. He is not part of the waste treatment plant. He is not even an aquaculturist, right? He is just a curious person who has gotten involved.”
She said she was already excited about the prospect of being in Maine, the “birthplace of seaweed aquaculture,” noting that Portland-based Ocean Approved was the first commercial, open-water kelp farm in the United States. But, “to be able to walk into that kind of engagement was really, really appealing,” Price said.
Her other major area of research focuses on the impact of global changes, including ocean acidification, on coral reefs. When she can, she travels to Palmyra Atoll, a Central Pacific island over 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. But half her work is focused on the Gulf of Maine. About three years ago, she began the research into the beneficial effects of combining kelp farming with mussel aquaculture.
Working with Ocean Approved’s kelp farming operations and Bangs Island, a leader in mussel farming in Maine, she set up a study where rope-hung mussels in an oyster cage were grown literally inside a kelp farm, then within varying distances of 125, 250 and 500 meters from the kelp. The premise was that there could be a phytoremediation “halo,” whereby the growing kelp, by sequestering carbon, improves conditions for mussels. The study seems to have borne that out. “We haven’t published in a peer-reviewed publication yet, so we still consider this to be preliminary data until it is vetted through that process,” Price said. “But we are excited. We do think we have evidence to suggest that there is a halo effect.”
Meaning, mussels like growing in close proximity to kelp. “It looks like they are meatier and their shells are sturdier inside the farm,” Price said.
Since mussels are one of the shellfish species having increasing trouble forming its shells because of ocean acidification, that’s very good news. But Price said questions remain about whether perhaps detritus from the farm is feeding the mussels and that’s why they seem meatier and healthier.
That’s where the time machine comes in. It will enable Price to isolate or eliminate the potential detritus impact and also to tinker with the levels of acidification in a controlled environment. “We are going to change both the temperature and carbon dioxide content so it is looking at conditions like they are today in Casco Bay and what we expect them to look like a hundred years from now.”
It could be that kelp will give mussels the tools they need to survive in an ocean forever altered by human activity. Given that scientists say the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans – “maybe Japan is the only other place that is similar,” Price said – the stakes are high.
The work she does in tropical systems, documenting changes even in places far from human activity (Palmyra’s population tops out at 25 research scientists and is typically four, she said), can be depressing. In contrast, Price said, the solutions-based science she’s doing with phytoremediation in Maine feels more positive.
“We are finding that there are circumstances where the phytoremediation makes sense and others where it does not,” Price said. “But what we are finding is this revenue generating solution at the same time (i.e., two commercially viable crops) is having an impact on shellfish even right now.”
She wants to empower everyone from policymakers to aquaculturists and resource managers to safeguard against increasing ocean acidification. The manual for countering those high levels of carbon dioxide might read like this: Plant kelp. Watch it sequester carbon dioxide. Eat some of the kelp. Feed some to livestock (there is increasing evidence that it diminishes emissions of another greenhouse gas, methane). And grow mussels at the same time.
“That’s an unique aspect of ocean acidification research,” Price said. “It can be pre-emptive and proactive rather than just reactive.”
TIME TRAVELING LOBSTERS
Upstairs, David Fields is putting a slightly different version of the time machine to another use. He and his team are in the midst of baby lobster research that can only start in the months from May through July when water temperatures are warm enough to allow lobster to spawn.
“You have come at a totally busy, crazy time,” Fields said.
Working in collaboration with Rick Wahle, from the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, Fields is studying lobster recruitment, how larvae develop and feed and survive (or don’t) in today’s Gulf of Maine waters. He’s looking at three distinct populations, lobsters from Rhode Island waters, the midcoast area right around Bigelow and Down East, where lobster populations are now thriving.
While there are plenty of adult lobsters in the Gulf of Maine, with record catches, scientists began reporting smaller numbers of baby lobsters in recent years. (Another worrisome sign? An earlier shedding season.) Wahle has been placing settlement traps of a sort (without walls) in the same locations for about 30 years, Fields said. Young lobsters reliably showed up in them. Until they didn’t.
It is possible they are simply recruiting elsewhere, in deeper, colder waters, as the Gulf of Maine warms. Wahle’s research suggests that possibility, but it is too early to tell. It’s a big question that needs answering (one of Maine’s dealers even chipped in $75,000 this year to help fund Wahle’s research) from an economic and ecological standpoint.
At Bigelow, Fields is focusing on how baby lobsters pass through the larval stages and how they might adapt in rapidly warming and acidifying waters. “Why aren’t we seeing more young lobsters?” Fields said. “You are trying to answer so many more questions than just that basic one.”
He’s got a researcher working on how long the babies can survive on the gift they all get from their mother, a fat vacuole intended to carry them over until they can feed on their own. Fields wants to know how increasing temperatures and levels of ocean acidification might impact that fat vacuole. His researchers study how it gets burned. They measure breathing rates, carbon levels, lipid levels. It’s a full physical for lobster larvae that have been exposed to the predicted levels of both temperature and ocean acidification of the future.
He and Barney Balch developed the “time machine” in 2012. Full disclosure, Fields is far more likely to call it “the CO2 rig where we mix gases,” but when he calls it the time machine, people tend to sit up. At the time, they were working on that ocean acidification study on “these little chalk-forming algae that he studies” and Fields’ beloved copepods. “We built a CO2 (carbon dioxide) system that takes the standard air and strips out all of the CO2 and then allows us to add it into a naked stream with no CO2 in it,” he said. “The beauty of that is that means you can go forward in time, like we are doing.”
And also, backwards.
“Over historical time, the CO2 concentrations on earth at times were much higher, and copepods evolved at a time when they were much higher,” he said. “And despite the fact that we like to think that anything different than now is bad, they evolved at a time when it was bad.” Maybe that time was actually good for copepods. And now, as ocean chemistry and temperature changes at a rapid rate, he’s finding that while neither are good, the copepods can handle future acidification better than temperature.
As for lobsters, while finding are still in early stages, he and Wahle have concluded that both temperature and carbon dioxide levels have an effect on lobster larvae physiology. “But predicted rise in temperature (like what’s expected for the end of this century) is going to have the most pronounced effects on mortality and development rates,” Fields said.
Have the Down East lobsters fared better than the Rhode Island or even midcoast lobsters in the study?
“The jury is out on the comparative study between populations,” he said. They’re still in the middle of those experiments. “We are seeing differences in the population response, but I am not ready to go public with that data yet.”
This summer, he’ll be sending more baby lobsters into the future. And hoping they come back with good news.
“I am an eternal optimist,” Fields said. “And I do think that, as humans, we will resolve some of our issues. At a slower rate than we probably want, and there will be extinctions.”
“But I think, as a society, we will pull it together,” he added.
Mary Pols, Portland Press Herald, 29 July 2018. Article.