Overly acidic water is a common problem in southeastern U.S. lakes, and left alone, this can have huge negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems. Essentially, fish and invertebrates don’t particularly enjoy the low pH levels that come with acidic water and can’t survive at a pH below 4. To get around this issue, calcium carbonate is added to water to help maintain a pH that is more preferable to aquatic creatures (usually, around pH 7).
So, what does acidic water in southern ponds have to do with the west coast? More than you think, but it’s on a much, much larger scale.
It’s called: ocean acidification. Similarly to overly acidic ponds in the southern U.S., when the pH level drops in the marine environment many organisms are negatively impacted. But, in contrast to a lake or pond, there is no quick fix for low pH levels in the ocean. Dumping massive amounts of calcium carbonate in the open ocean isn’t an option (can you imagine how much calcium carbonate that would take? A lot.). But, it is an option on a much smaller scale, and something similar is currently used by a hatchery in Oregon.
Through my fellowship, I’ve become familiar with a lot of great work being done in Oregon to try to better understand ocean acidification, and the impacts on the marine environment. And, believe me, it’s a lot — which is awesome because ocean acidification is a big problem. For example, did you know that the west coast ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification (see #12 of this fact sheet)? Or that free swimming sea snails, call Pteropods, have shells that are dissolving in acidic environments (check out this graphic; these strange looking little guys also happen to be salmon food)? Or that ocean acidification impacts on west coast oyster larvae have been compared to ‘a canary in a coalmine’ (see this TEDx video)? Needless to say, ocean acidification is something that can’t be ignored. Fortunately, Oregon is at the forefront of some really cool research in order to better understand the impacts of ocean acidification, and strategies to combat it. Some current projects include, investigating how sea grass could provide a refuge for shellfish in more acidic conditions, or understanding the impacts of ocean acidification on native oysters, along with exploring how terrestrial factors influence oxygen levels in estuaries. Plus, an Oregon hatchery is home to a unique partnership between researchers and shellfish growers that arose from a massive oyster die-off a few years ago.
In 2007, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, located on Netarts Bay, had a catastrophic oyster die-off caused by ocean acidification (you can read the backstory here). In order to understand the causes and find solutions, researchers and the shellfish industry teamed up to develop a collaborative partnership that continues today. The hatchery combats acidic water with their own version of an antiacid, called soda ash. Adding soda ash to hatchery systems helps increase the pH and buffers the water against acidity. This solution works most of the time, except during the annual summer upwelling, in which no amount of buffering can combat the low pH levels associated with this event. For this reason, Whiskey Creek Hatchery continues to work towards better understanding the science and ecological impacts behind ocean acidification. And, since the 2007 die-off, the hatchery has hosted numerous research efforts to better understand ocean acidification and hypoxia. In-fact, some of their current projects include: addressing and mitigating early warning signs of ocean acidification on oyster larvae, along with working to improve juvenile oyster survival rates.
Also, on the policy front, there is a lot of great support in Oregon to research, manage and ultimately, better understand this issue. Last summer, Governor Kitzhaber announced that Oregon is teaming up with California to form a panel that focuses on the extent, causes, and effects of ocean acidification along the Pacific coast. Five researchers from Oregon were selected to be on the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel. The goal of this panel is to bring together experts from across the West Coast to tackle the complex issues of ocean acidification and hypoxia, and hopefully this will lead to some creative research efforts, management or policy options.
Even with all this ongoing work, there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding ocean acidification and hypoxia. For example, we are only in the early stages of understanding the degree of impact that acidic conditions can have on ecosystems, fisheries, the economy, and even, human health. But, we do know that we are facing a future with lower pH levels and higher CO2 levels that will likely be less than ideal—at least for some species, and in some environments. Although, how this will ripple throughout the ecosystem is difficult to predict, although the more we know, the better off we’ll be.