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December 10, 2012

Can Oysters Survive Ocean Acidification?

Like many oyster growers, Shina Wysocki and her family depend on oyster larvae, also called oyster seed, to grow oysters.

But a few years ago, the larvae suddenly began dying by the billions.

It turns out the seawater pumped into the hatcheries, where the larvae grow, is so harmful that it eats away the young oyster shells before they can form.

“When the waters were highly corrosive, the organisms died within two days. The oyster larvae just simply died. When the water was high pH, they did just fine. It was just like a switch,” said Richard Feely of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

According to reports, that switch is happening around the world as oceans take in large amounts of carbon dioxide, or CO2

Over the last 200 years or so, humans have released about two trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And about a quarter of that, or 550 billion tons of carbon dioxide, have been absorbed by the oceans.

In hopes of finding a solution to this problem, oystermen have been working with scientists to find ways to adapt. Hatcheries now monitor seawater and only allow it in when acidity levels are lower. They’re also adding sodium carbonate and eelgrass to help balance the pH levels. That’s helped growers recover nearly 75 percent of their losses.

However, not all are optimistic. Feely believes the West Coast will still face decades of increasingly corrosive water because the ocean is full with CO2 from decades past and will continue to absorb the CO2 already in the air, slowly changing its chemistry.


Quote

“For shellfish growers, the future is now. This is a very real problem, and we hope that people pay attention to the canary in the coal mine here.” – Bill Dewey, Taylor Shellfish Farms.

Warm up questions

1. What is carbon dioxide?

2. What is pH?

3. Why is pH an important factor in testing water quality?

Discussion questions

1. What is ocean acidification?

2. What types of organisms are directly threatened by ocean acidification? Why?

3. How does carbon dioxide cause the pH of the ocean to decrease?

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