‘One morning we came in and everything was dead’: Climate change and Oregon oysters

 

By Travis Knudsen Wednesday, March 1st 2017, KVAL.com
KVAL oyster pic Whiskey CreekTILLAMOOK, Ore. – The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery is quietly tucked away off the Netarts Bay in Tillamook.

As the state’s only shellfish hatchery, it’s a large part of the oyster industry in the region.

Alan Barton is the Production Manager at Whiskey Creek.

He’s worked there for the past decade and says they play a big part bringing shellfish from ocean to plate.

“We probably produce about a third of all oyster larvae on the West Coast,” says Barton.

In 2007 and 2008, the whole operation was nearly shut down.

Something changed in the waters of Netarts Bay, which Whiskey Creek uses to spawn oysters.

Their output was reduced by nearly 75 percent each year.

A hatchery out of business would have had a substantial impact on the oyster industry.

The Washington Shellfish Initiative estimated that shellfish growers employ, directly and indirectly, more than 3,200 people across the Pacific Northwest with an economic impact around $270 million.

“In these rural areas along the coastline, 3,000 jobs are pretty important,” says Barton. “These are just blue collar guys.”

Initially, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery staff believed their mass die-offs were caused by biological problems, like foreign bacteria – or the wrong type of algae used for food.

“I remember one morning, we came in and everything was dead, all of it,” says Barton.

“It was our worst day, but also our best day. Because it’s when we realized the problem might be with the water from the bay.”

That is when the hatchery turned to Oregon State University for help.

The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery believed “ocean acidification,” a byproduct of climate change, was to blame.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) define ocean acidification, or “OA” for short as, “a reduction in the pH of the ocean over an extended period of time, caused primarily by uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.”

In essence, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the more it will sink into the ocean.

Once enough of it gets into the water, it’s chemical makeup changes.

That can have a wide variety of effects on local animals and the ecosystem they live in.

George Waldbusser, Associate Professor at OSU, says ocean acidification is undoubtedly connected to climate change.

“By burning fossil fuels, we’ve increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by 30 percent,” he says. “That’s lowered the pH of the ocean — or the acidity of the ocean — by about 30 percent, which shifts the saturation state and makes it harder for organisms to make shells.”

The drop in acid in water is troubling for shellfish.

During the first two weeks of an oyster’s life they are especially sensitive to the level of oxygen and acid in the water.

In high acid events, oyster’s shells deform – and often times they die.

Waldbusser believes conditions will only get harder, not easier on shellfish.

“We know the chemistry will change and these extreme events will get worse and worse. And so periods of time that are easy or good to grow oysters will diminish in time for the hatchery,” he says.

Fortunately, OSU was able to help the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery.

Burke Hales, a professor at OSU, created a way to measure the chemistry of the water used to spawn shellfish.

That allows the hatchery to treat the water and provide a successful growing environment for their oysters.

“With that knowledge,” Hales says, “the Whiskey Creek folks are able to change their operations: the timing of their water pumping, how they condition the water. Now they’re back to almost 100 percent of their pre-crash productivity.”

But Hales believes the current method of overcoming ocean acidification is not a long-term solution.

“Netarts Bay has always had some good times; it’s always had some bad times. But the frequency of the good times is less and the frequency of the bad times is greater. And the bad times are a little bit worse than they used to be,” says Hales.

To combat the problem for the long term researchers at OSU point to reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere which causes ocean acidification.

“We have to recognize that fossil fuel emissions are a cause of climate change and ocean acidification. We also have to recognize that we’ve relied on them for a long time and we have to find reasonable transition plans to move away from fossil fuels and into alternative energy,” says Waldbusser.

For Barton at the Whiskey Creeks Shellfish Hatchery, he’s thankful they’ve found a way to overcome the effect the effect carbon dioxide has had on the ocean.

“If we had not figured out what ocean acidification was doing to this hatchery we would for sure be out of business,” he says.

However, he is not confident their current techniques for treating the water will sustain them forever.

“The short term prospects are pretty good. But within the next couple of decades we’re going to cross a line I don’t think we’re going to be able to come back from,” he says. “A lot of people have the luxury of being skeptics about climate change and ocean acidification. But we don’t have that choice. If we don’t change the chemistry of the water going into our tanks, we’ll be out of business. It’s that simple for us.”

Originally published here

Our Deadened, Carbon-Soaked Seas

The New York Times, October 15th, 2015,

Ocean and coastal waters around the world are beginning to tell a disturbing story. The seas, like a sponge,

nytimes oa picare absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so much so that the chemical balance of our oceans and coastal waters is changing and a growing threat to marine ecosystems. Over the past 200 years, the world’s seas have absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon from human activities. Currently, that’s a worldwide average of 15 pounds per person a week, enough to fill a coal train long enough to encircle the equator 13 times every year.

We can’t see this massive amount of carbon dioxide that’s going into the ocean, but it dissolves in seawater as carbonic acid, changing the water’s chemistry at a rate faster than seen for millions of years. Known as ocean acidification, this process makes it difficult for shellfish, corals and other marine organisms to grow, reproduce and build their shells and skeletons.

About 10 years ago, ocean acidification nearly collapsed the annual $117 million West Coast shellfish industry, which supports more than 3,000 jobs. Ocean currents pushed acidified water into coastal areas, making it difficult for baby oysters to use their limited energy to build protective shells. In effect, the crop was nearly destroyed.

Human health, too, is a major concern. In the laboratory, many harmful algal species produce more toxins and bloom faster in acidified waters. A similar response in the wild could harm people eating contaminated shellfish and sicken, even kill, fish and marine mammals such as sea lions.

Increasing acidity is hitting our waters along with other stressors. The ocean is warming; in many places the oxygen critical to marine life is decreasing; pollution from plastics and other materials is pervasive; and in general we overexploit the resources of the ocean. Each stressor is a problem, but all of them affecting the oceans at one time is cause for great concern. For both the developing and developed world, the implications for food security, economies at all levels, and vital goods and services are immense.

This year, the first nationwide study showing the vulnerability of the $1 billion U.S. shellfish industry to ocean acidification revealed a considerable list of at-risk areas. In addition to the Pacific Northwest, these areas include Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and areas off Maine and Massachusetts. Already at risk are Alaska’s fisheries, which account for nearly 60 percent of the United States commercial fish catch and support more than 100,000 jobs.

Ocean acidification is weakening coral structures in the Caribbean and in cold-water coral reefs found in the deep waters off Scotland and Norway. In the past three decades, the number of living corals covering the Great Barrier Reef has been cut in half, reducing critical habitat for fish and the resilience of the entire reef system. Dramatic change is also apparent in the Arctic, where the frigid waters can hold so much carbon dioxide that nearby shelled creatures can dissolve in the corrosive conditions, affecting food sources for indigenous people, fish, birds and marine mammals. Clear pictures of the magnitude of changes in such remote ocean regions are sparse. To better understand these and other hotspots, more regions must be studied.

Read more here

New England Takes on Ocean Pollution State By State

By Patrick Whittle, Associated Press, March 30, 2015

Portland, Maine — A group of state legislators in New England want to form a multi-state pact to counter increasing ocean acidity along the East Coast, a problem they believe will endanger multi-million dollar fishing industries if left unchecked.

The legislators’ effort faces numerous hurdles: They are in the early stages of fostering cooperation between many layers of government, hope to push for potentially expensive research and mitigation projects, and want to use state laws to tackle a problem scientists say is the product of global environmental trends.

But the legislators believe they can gain a bigger voice at the federal and international levels by banding together, said Mick Devin, a Maine representative who has advocated for ocean research in his home state. The states can also push for research to determine the impact that local factors such as nutrient loading and fertilizer runoff have on ocean acidification and advocate for new controls, he said.

“We don’t have a magic bullet to reverse the effects of ocean acidification and stop the world from pumping out so much carbon dioxide,” Devin said. “But there are things we can do locally.”

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration says the growing acidity of worldwide oceans is tied to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and they attribute the growth to fossil fuel burning and land use changes. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased from 280 parts per million to over 394 parts per million over the past 250 years, according to NOAA.

Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, and when it mixes with seawater it reduces the availability of carbonate ions, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said. Those ions are critical for marine life such as shellfish, coral and plankton to grow their shells.

The changing ocean chemistry can have “potentially devastating ramifications for all ocean life,” including key commercial species, according to NOAA.

The New England states are following a model set by Maine, which commissioned a panel to spend months studying scientific research about ocean acidification and its potential impacts on coastal industries. Legislators in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are working on bills to create similar panels. A similar bill was shot down in committee in the New Hampshire legislature but will likely be back in 2016, said Rep. David Borden, who sponsored the bill.

Read more here

European Union is funding a €3.6 million shellfish study to understand affects of OA

A team of international scientists has launched an ambitious mission to understand how the warming and acidification of the world’s oceans will affect Europe’s shellfish.

Currently scientists do not fully understand how species such as oysters, mussels, scallops and clams produce their shells, or how a change in environment will affect their populations. To address this, the European Union is funding a €3.6 million programme called CACHE (Calcium in a Changing Environment).

Coordinated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge this multi-national programme, which aims to train a new generation of marine scientists, will look at every aspect of how the animals produce their shells and strive to identify populations which are resilient to climate change.

The shellfish industry is an important contributor to the European marine economy – dubbed the “Blue economy” – which is currently worth €500 billion every year and provides an estimated 5.4 million jobs.

These relatively small animals play an important role in the oceans because they are a crucial part of marine biodiversity and, as they make their shells out of calcium carbonate, they have a role in absorbing CO2. While the fishery industry built around them provides jobs in rural communities the animals themselves are also seen as an important and healthy food.

Shellfish have been highlighted as being particularly at risk under future climate change scenarios.

The risk comes because their shells are made of calcium carbonate – a substance which dissolves under acidic conditions. As the oceans become warmer and more acidic their shells will either thin, or the animals will have to expend more energy on producing thicker shells. This will affect their population sizes and the quality of the meat they produce, directly affecting the fisheries economy and damaging consumer choice.

Read more here:

Ocean Acidification Linked to Larval Oyster Failure

ScienceDaily (Apr. 11, 2012) — Researchers at Oregon State University have definitively linked an increase in ocean acidification to the collapse of oyster seed production at a commercial oyster hatchery in Oregon, where larval growth had declined to a level considered by the owners to be “non-economically viable.”

A study by the researchers found that elevated seawater carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, resulting in more corrosive ocean water, inhibited the larval oysters from developing their shells and growing at a pace that would make commercial production cost-effective. As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, this may serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for other ocean acidification impacts on shellfish, the scientists say.

Click here to read more

A screen covered with oyster larvae, taken in 2007 at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery near Netarts Bay, Ore. A 2012 study has found that Increasingly acidic ocean water is preventing larvae from developing shells. (Credit: Lynn Ketchum, Oregon State University)

Algae and Puget Sound Acidification Linked

The ocean absorbs a large portion of the CO2 that we release into the atmosphere from our power plants and tail pipes. But when it gets there that CO2 makes the water more acidic and less hospitable for some creatures, like shellfish. In Puget Sound some shellfish hatcheries have already lost millions of oyster larvae because of exposure to acidic water.

Ocean acidification has scientists and policymakers in the Northwest concerned. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire has convened a panel on Ocean Acidification, which met this week. Ashley Ahearn reports.

Remember those little pieces of paper you used to measure pH back in junior high school? You’d stick them into your can of coke or on your tongue and the color would tell you how acidic that liquid was?

Well if you stuck litmus paper into the world’s oceans it would come out closer and closer to the acidic side of the pH scale.

Feeley: “The acidity of the ocean has increased by 30 % over the last 250 years.”

Read more here

What’s an Ocean Worth?

 

If you like oysters, it is time to pay attention to what is happening in Oregon. And even if you don’t like them, but care about the global food web that allows oysters to grow, reproduce and thrive, what’s happening Oregon should give you pause.

Ocean acidification, a consequence of the oceans being overloaded with carbon dioxide from human fossil fuel use, has been shown by a group of researchers to hamper the development of larval oysters at a hatchery on the Oregon coast. After years of suspicion, this was the smoking gun demonstrating that acidification has real damaging effects on commercial fisheries and that they are happening not 100 years from now but as we speak.

Scientists have been long able to demonstrate in the lab and on paper why this would be so. In the absence of hard evidence from the field, however, they have been exceptionally careful to distinguish what they know from what they suspect. But now it is folly to assume that this problem is limited to one small stretch of Pacific Northwest coastline.

As an indictment of our failure to wean ourselves off oil and coal, this is more fuel for the fire. More importantly, this news will help people understand that there is a hard dollar cost to misusing the oceans. Indeed there is tremendous financial incentive to leaving at least parts of it alone.

My job is lucky enough to come with an office that looks over a lovely marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean whose boundaries recently expanded as part of a revision of California Marine Protected Areas. Of course, this expansion didn’t happen without controversy. There was a predictable hue and cry from sportfishers and commercial fishers who claimed they were being physically separated from their livelihood by a line drawn in the water.

But the facts don’t necessarily support that. Fishermen in Baja California, Mexico decided more than a decade ago to create a marine reserve and make themselves the enforcers of its boundaries. The region they protect is now one of the biologically richest places in Mexico and the subsistence fishermen in Cabo Pulmo no longer have to worry about feeding themselves. California now has a chance to replicate that experience.

Separately a group of researchers writing for the Stockholm Environment Institute put an especially fine point on the argument against exploiting the oceans unsustainably. They calculated a cost savings of more than $1 trillion per year by 2100 if a course of aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reduction is pursued versus our current negligence, often labeled “business-as-usual.” It is a brave attempt to derive a hard dollar figure using extremely nebulous variables. Nonetheless they make a good argument that their estimate is a conservative one.

It is frustratingly naïve to believe that the benefits of offshore oil exploration (or terrestrial, for that matter) automatically justify the costs. The same can be said for corporate farming that routes tons of fertilizer and pesticides to the oceans. And the same is true for largely uncontrolled disposal of pharmaceutical products and plastics. It is naïve because even the most educated experts do not yet even know the full costs. The oyster industry in Oregon affected by ocean acidification is worth about $278 million, a pittance in a world where a single oilrig can cost $5 billion. On the other hand, that industry is everything to the people who rely on that fishery and a source of great pleasure to the consumers it serves. As if that is not enough to make us think, here is a final thought: The acidification brought on by the past 150 years or so of fossil fuel use will require more than 1,000 years to reverse.

The ocean is large and opaque. It is an act of irresponsible faith to think that impenetrable blue mass is big enough to absorb all our sins without consequence. We need to finish the work of realistically assessing the ocean’s value, and cherish it accordingly.

Tony Haymet, PhD, is director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, and formerly Chief of Marine & Atmospheric Research at CSIRO Australia.

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