Register-Guard: Changing ocean chemistry threatens marine life

The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery on the state’s north coast watched oyster larvae die en masse for three years in a row in the mid-2000s — depriving oyster farms along the entire West Coast of seed oysters.

Florence crabber Al Pazar saw baby octopuses, an inch or two long, climb up his crab lines to escape the sea waters in the 2005 season. When he pulled up his pots, the crab were dead.

Eugene fisherman Ryan Rogers, who drags in great piles of salmon on an Alaska purse seiner, has instead brought up nets full of jellyfish in recent years.

“Sometimes we’ll catch 4,000 or 5,000 pounds of jellyfish. They spray all around. We get stung,” he said. “It makes it difficult to bring your net in. You have to let it go and lose the salmon that are in your net.”

Scientists — including many at Oregon State University — are beginning to define the cause of these events. They call it ocean acidification and hypoxia.

Wind, currents and ocean chemistry conspire to create pools of corrosive waters that can be lethal to key commercial species in Northwest waters — and favorable to some nuisance species, such as jellyfish. …

The Eugene Register-Guard examines what OSU scientists – some of them working with Oregon Sea Grant funding – are learning about the causes and consequences of ocean acidification.

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South coast native oysters may survive acidification threat

Oyster baskets at Whiskey Creek Shellfish HatcheryCOOS BAY – While some West coast oyster stocks are threatened by rising ocean acidity, native oysters on Oregon’s south coast seem to be doing well.

Netarts Bay’s Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery — which produces much of the oyster seed used by commercial farms in the region —has experienced a decline in production that Oregon State University researchers traced directly to ocean acidification.

But biologist Steve Rumrill, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish monitoring program at the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, suspects that the shallow parts of Coos Bay “may be able to act as a sort of buffer,” protecting native Olympia oysters in that area from the shell-destroying effects of ocean acidification.

Another clue could lie in the oysters’ breeding habits, according to George Waldbusser, an OSU biologist who studies oyster reproduction and survival.

“Olympias are brooders,” Waldbusser said, referring to the species’ trait of carrying eggs in an internal chamber for several weeks after fertilization, whereas the Pacific oysters bred in Netarts Bay broadcast their fertilized eggs into the open water, where they are directly exposed to chemical changes at an earlier point in their life cycles, when they may be more vulnerable.

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OSU secures critical funding to continue ocean acidification research

Oregon State University will receive funds that will help the West Coast’s shellfish industry in its fight against ocean acidification, thanks largely to the efforts of Oregon state Senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose). Receipt of these funds will give a critical boost to Oregon State University’s and the shellfish industry’s efforts to reduce the negative impacts of ocean acidification on shellfish production.

House Bill 5008 allocated $250,000 to Oregon State University. A portion of the funds will be used to continue OSU’s efforts to improve the resilience of oyster to ocean acidification through its selective breeding program at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. The remaining funds will be dedicated to OSU’s collaboration with industry leaders at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery (see “The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Acid Tests” in the current issue of Confluence) on Netarts Bay as they continue to identify better ways to manage the negative effects of ocean acidification on shellfish larvae.

You can read the rest of this story here.

Summer issue of Confluence magazine now online

The summer 2013 issue of Oregon Sea Grant’s magazine, Confluence, is now online at

Articles in this issue, which focuses on aquaculture in Oregon, include “The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Acid Tests,” “Priced out of our own seafood,” and “The traveling ornamental defender.”

Oyster shells help restore chemical balance to acid waters

Healthy young oyster spatThe shells of oysters – a commercially important shellfish whose reproduction and growth is threatened by climate-linked ocean acidification – may help counteract the effects of increased local acidity levels, according to a new study of New England’s Chesapeake Bay by a team of researchers led by Oregon State University’s George Waldbusser.

The study, published in the journal Ecology and reported this week in the New York Times , concludes that the buildup of old shells in undisturbed oyster beds – along with the oysters’ waste – can help restore alkalinity to waters that might otherwise be too acid for the shellfish to survive.

Like ocean waters around the world, the Chesapeake has become more and more acidic as a result of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now, by studying oyster populations in relation to acidity levels,Waldbusser’s team has concluded that oysters — particularly their shells — can play a significant role in reducing that acidity.

“Oyster shells are made out of calcium carbonate, so they’re sort of like an antacid pill,” said Waldbusser, an assistant professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at OSU and an author of the study. “In an undisturbed oyster reef, healthy oysters are generating a lot of biodeposits,” a genteel term for excrement, “which helps generate CO2 to help break down those shells, which helps to regenerate the alkalinity back into the environment.”

Ocean acidification is of great concern to commercial oyster growers. Additional  research by Waldbusser and colleague Burke Hales, conducted at an Oregon oyster hatchery, has shown that increasing acidity near commercial shellfish operations inhibits the larval oysters from developing shells and growing at a pace that makes oyster farming economically viable.

Waldbusser is also working on a Sea Grant-funded project to develop Web-based tools that would allow oyster growers and resource managers to better understand how acidification affects larval oysters so they can more effectively adapt, mitigate and adjust their operations to increase oyster survival and growth.

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Washington state declares war on ocean acidification

Washington state, the leading US producer of farmed shellfish, this week launched a 42-step plan to reduce ocean acidification. The initiative — detailed in a report by a governor-appointed panel of scientists, policy-makers and shellfish industry representatives — marks the first US state-funded effort to tackle ocean acidification, a growing problem for both the region and the globe.

The state governor Christine Gregoire,  says she will allocate $3.3 million to back the panel’s priority recommendations.

“Washington is clearly in the lead with respect to ocean acidification,” says Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

As growing carbon dioxide gas emissions have dissolved into the world’s oceans, the average acidity of the waters has increased by 30% since 1750. Washington, which produces farmed oysters, clams and mussels, is particularly vulnerable to acidification, for two reasons: seasonal, wind-driven upwelling events bring low-pH waters from the deep ocean towards the shore, and land-based nutrient runoff from farming fuels algal growth, which also lowers pH.

Read the full story in Nature.

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Public forum aims to demystify ocean acidification, hypoxia

How is Oregon's ocean affected by hypoxia and acidification?TILLAMOOK – Hypoxia and ocean acidification get a lot of press, but how many people know what these phenomena are, what causes them and what they mean for marine species and coastal communities? Now’s the chance to find out, in an Oct. 23 public forum that aims to take some of the mystery out of the science behind measuring, understanding and minimizing the effects of of these ocean conditions.

The forum, starting at 6:30 pm in rooms 214-215 at Tillamook Bay Community College, 4301 3rd St., is free and open to the public. Pre-registration is encouraged, but not required. For more information, visit the PISCO Website.

Organized by the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of the Ocean (PISCO) and Oregon Sea Grant, the forum will focus on cutting edge research by scientists from many disciplines, and how resource managers and industries are responding.  A series of speakers will address:

  • The definitions of ocean acidification and coastal hypoxia, and how they are related – Francis Chan, OSU Zoology/PISCO
  • Why this is happening off our coast and what makes Oregon vulnerable – Burke Hales, OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS).
  • How scientists are monitoring the ocean for these changes – Jack Barth (CEOAS/PISCO)
  • The impacts of acidification on shellfish hatcheries – Alan Barton (Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery)

Speakers will be followed by a question-and-answer panel featuring scientists and representatives of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The event is hosted by PISCO through funding from Oregon Sea Grant.

Rising ocean acidity threatens West Coast ecosystems

Humanity’s use of fossil fuels sends 35 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That has already begun to change the fundamental chemistry of the world’s oceans, steadily making them more acidic.

Now, a new high resolution computer model reveals that over the next 4 decades, rising ocean acidity will likely have profound impacts on waters off the West Coast of the United States, home to one of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems and most important commercial fisheries.

These impacts have the potential to upend the entire marine ecosystem and affect millions of people dependent upon it for food and jobs.

George Waldbusser, an Oregon State University ocean ecologist and biogeochemist currently working under Oregon Sea Grant funding to study the effects of acidification on oysters and other commercially important bivalves, says it’s not clear precisely how rising acidity will affect different organisms. However, he adds, the changes will likely be broad-based. “It shows us that the windows of opportunity for organisms to succeed get smaller and smaller. It will probably have important effects on fisheries, food supply, and general ocean ecology.”

Volcanic vents offer peek at acidic future

The underwater volcanoes off a tiny Italian island are helping scientists peer into the future of a world altered by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted into the air and absorbed into the oceans.

The waters just off the island of Ischia mirror the projected conditions of the Earth’s oceans at the beginning of the next century because the volcanic vents found there infuse the water with large helpings of carbon dioxide, or CO2, which turns seawater acidic.

Research has shown that the growing acidic conditions are harmful to some sea creatures — those that build their protective shells with calcium are increasingly prevented from doing so the more acidic waters become.

The fates of these creatures and the stability of the ocean food chain are a major concern over the next century and beyond because of the carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by humans, as the oceans absorb about 30 percent of this carbon dioxide.

“One part of climate change that is indisputable is that CO2 is rising in the atmosphere — it’s easy to measure,” said Bill Chadwick, an Oregon State University geologist. “And it’s indisputable that it is making the oceans more acidic — we can measure it.”

(Oregon Sea Grant has supported previous deep-sea research projects by Dr. Chadwick).

Ocean acidification: Trouble for oysters

Tiny oyster larvae, compared to a nickelCould increases in ocean acidity be partly to blame for larval die-offs that have plagued Northwest oyster producers for much of the past decade? Scientists and growers believe that may be the case – and they’re struggling to help the region’s lucrative shellfish industry adapt to the risk.

In a recent blog post for the Sightline Institute, a Pacific Northwest sustainable policy center, former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Jennifer Langston talks to growers and scientist who are concerned about ocean acidification and the threat it poses for oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest.

According to Langston, West Coast oyster production dropped from 94 million pounds in 2005 to 73 million pounds in 2009, resulting in an $11 million loss in sales for what had become a $72 million-a-year industry.

Langston interviewed researchers at Oregon State University who have embarked on a major, multi-year investigation of  the effects of ocean acidification on oyster production. Among that team is OSU researcher Chris Langdon, who has received Oregon Sea Grant support for his research on the health and production of oysters, abalone and other shellfish.

While Langdon and others have identified toxic organisms  such as Vibrio tubiashii as part of the problem, there are also signs that increasing ocean acidity is playing a role in the die-off of larval oysters, which appears to worsen when ocean temperatures and currents cause water that’s high in carbon dioxide and low in pH (acidic) to well up and mix with the “good” water normally found in the oyster breeding beds.

Using what researchers have learned from their ongoing study of the issue, two major oyster producers have been able to adapt their practices to ocean conditions. Using a monitoring buoy as an early alert to changes in seawater chemistry, they were able to schedule production for “good water” periods, resulting in a strong rebound in production in the 2010 season. But concern about the state of the oceans remains.

Read the entire article in Sightline Institute’s blog.

Read more about the NOAA research project and how it has helped growers adjust their aquaculture practices.

[Photo courtesy of OSU Extension Service]