Oysters Killed by Climate Change’s Evil Twin

The oyster industry is in trouble. A few years ago, oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest began losing their “seed,” as oyster larvae are known, by the millions. They scrambled to figure out what was behind the massive die-off and discovered that it had to do with “ocean acidification,” also known as climate change’s evil twin.

As with climate change, ocean acidification happens when there’s too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The earth’s waters absorb some of that CO2 — more than a quarter of the amount that we produce — as a way of achieving chemical equilibrium between water and air. “When CO2 mixes with seawater,” Jim Meyer explains, “it creates carbonic acid, and, spoiler alert, increasing acid in the oceans makes the oceans more acidic.”

Acidified waters are deadly for sea creatures like oysters which have a hard time forming shells in that environment. The CO2 buildup can also cause “stunted growth, reproductive failure, respiratory problems, and even death,” writes Meyer. In past years, as Sarah Henry reported for Grist, Terry Sawyer of Hog Island Oyster Company would buy 7 million oyster seeds from hatcheries, but this year he was only able to buy 2.5 million, and they were significantly smaller, which reduces their chances of survival.

Some hatchery owners and oyster growers like Sawyer are collaborating with scientists to save the bivalves, and they are already making some progress. Scientists from UC Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory are monitoring the waters in Tomales Bay and, using that data, are advising the folks at Hog Island who now know, for example, how and when to change the water flow in their tanks to avoid low pH levels. “The only reason we still have oyster farmers on the West Coast,” said Brad Warren, a member of Washington’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, “is because they were extraordinarily lucky, smart, and resourceful.”

The problem of ocean acidification is only going to get worse. As Eric Scigliano explains, the frigid waters at the bottom of the ocean can hold more carbon and is therefore more acidic than warmer waters above. In time, those acidified waters make their way to the surface along the West Coast and other upwelling zones. Scientists have found that the cycle operates on a time lag:

The water rising from the depths today holds CO2 absorbed about 30 to 50 years ago, when… human activities began pushing increased amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Because carbon emissions have continued rising since, future upwellings are sure to be even more acidic. “We’ve mailed a package to ourselves,” says Oregon State oceanographer Burke Hales,… “and it’s hard to call off delivery.”

By working with scientists to restore oysters to a more hospitable environment, oyster growers and hatcheries on the West Coast are trying to save their own livelihoods. But oysters are also vital to the ecosystems in which they are found. As a keystone species, they provide habitat for other marine life in addition to filtering and cleaning the water for the organisms around them — up to 50 gallons per day by an individual oyster.

It’s in large part because the oyster industry has taken initiative by reaching out to scientists that there is hope yet for saving these creatures, not to mention the ecosystems they help to support. But the work has only just begun.


Related Stories:

We Need a National Plan to Save Sea Life and Curb Ocean Acidification

Washington State Declares War on Ocean Acidification

BP Pressured For $15 Million To Restore Gulf Oyster Habitats

Photo from Thinkstock

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Hannah Scrivener
Hannah Scrivener2 years ago

"The viable long-term solution has to include population restraint or we are finished. Unfortunately, in the developed world it seems that dumb people are having more children while smart people have few or none."

Population restraint doesn't seem realistic, unless you mean something imposed by government. (I hope you don't) Even then, it seems more practical to change the way we live on a daily level, from what we eat to the things we use. Also, having or avoiding children by itself is no measure of a person's intellect.

Nick Andrews
Nico Smart2 years ago

The viable long-term solution has to include population restraint or we are finished. Unfortunately, in the developed world it seems that dumb people are having more children while smart people have few or none. This is not conducive to a smart population.

William Troy
William Troy2 years ago

Everything we do, and have done collectively is bearing real-life consequences that are affecting other forms of life in a multitude of ways to numerous to solve individually. The best thing we can do for the oysters, Earth, and ourselves is to take more immediate responsibility for our way of life, starting with our rate of consumption/waste production.

Steven Silas
Steven Silas2 years ago

It really feels like we've doomed this planet. Look at all of the negative changes that have happened because of global warming.

Ana R2 years ago

Ken W sadly i agree with you....

Garnet Jenny Fulton
Past Member 2 years ago

Never heard of this situation nor had I heard of the ocean acidification, thank you for bringing awareness to two important issues.

Ken Mcmurtrie
Ken Mcmurtrie2 years ago

Yes Christine, but "canaries" to chemical and industrial pollution.
Regarding ocean pH, oyster natural breeding grounds are in water much less alkaline than normal ocean levels. CO2 is not a pollutant.

Christine Jones
Christine Jones2 years ago

Oysters are the canaries of the ocean, and we would be well advised to heed the warning they are giving us.

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla2 years ago

This is no about humans not having a job, it is about saving one species!!! Enough of humans´ needs!!! What about the planet´s needs??

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)