Global Ocean Acidification Research Starts at Local Level All Around the World

This article by Peggy Parker was originally published by, reprinted with permission.

Ocean acidification (OA) is a shift in the world’s oceans from neutral to more acidic water from the update of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ocean absorbs about 30% of the carbon in the air, resulting in increasing levels of carbonic acid in the sea. 

Researchers in Alaska, the South Pacific, New England, and further afield are studying the effects of increasing OA on their waters. In Alaska, research is focused on fisheries — from the billion-dollar groundfish resource in the Bering Sea to life-saving subsistence food along coastline; in New England, Martha’s Vinyard oyster ponds are being protected locally as OA increases, and in the South Pacific, a recent gathering of environmental ministers announced new alliances on research for OA, including a brand new Pacific Climate Change Centre (PCCC) to address OA among other climate change impacts, research, and innovation in creating resiliancies among Pacific Nations.

Alaska ranks as the fastest-warming U.S. state, and because it is surrounded by cold oceans, it is experiencing the fastest rise in OA.

The Alaska Ocean Acidification Center connects scientists with stakeholders who want to know everything they can about how OA may affect the state’s valuable fisheries resources. Established in 2016, the Center tracks the latest carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (as of March 30, at 412.48 ppm, the highest recorded ever) and conducts experiments that inform what higher OA will do to pollock, cod, and crab species. 

Robert Foy, Science and Research Director for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, says the direct effects of OA may be to reduce growth rates of juvenile fish, decreasing survival. OA can also interfere with sensory signals in the brain causing the fish to not recognize predators or prey. Indirect effects on the food web may reduce abundance of prey for fish, such as pteropods, the main food for juvenile fish. Cumulative effects may be a reduction in the overall productivity of fish resulting in less to catch commercially or gather for subsistence.

The Alaska Sea Grant program supports the research of University of Alaska Fairbanks assistant professor Amanda Kelley, a top researcher on ocean acidification’s effects in Alaska. Alaska Sea Grant has funded Kelley’s research studying how shellfish react to different levels of OA. Sea Grant recently produced a video of work Kelley is doing in Seward and in Kachemak Bay to better understand OA and how tribal members and citizen scientists are getting involved in monitoring it.

After Alaska, Rhode Island ranks as the fastest-warming state, following by New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts. The oyster industry in Martha’s Vinyard has been monitoring OA for years and may have an innovative approach to mitigating it.

The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group launched a shell recycle program, where they collect shells, let them age until they’re clean, and release them back into Great Ponds for restoration. “Adding shells helps buffer the water in small scales,” Emma Green-Beach, lead scientist of the Group said. “It provides hard calcium for baby oysters.” 

Oysters are a “keystone species” on Martha’s Vineyard, as their existence provides a habitat for other organisms. “When you have clusters of oysters, they make huge reefs where fish, urchins, crabs, and all sorts of plants and animals can live,” Green-Beach said. “Little fish can hide there. Big fish can hunt there. Oysters create a hard and complex structure on an otherwise muddy, flat bottom.” Oysters also filter water, and adults can filter up to 50 gallons a day, according to Green-Beach. 

The work that is being carried out in the Pacific to address this issue was highlighted at a side event during the second day of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP)’s 29th Meeting of Officials taking place in Apia, Samoa last week.

Among those highlighted was work of the New Zealand-Pacific Partnership on Ocean Acidification (NZPPOA) project in Fiji and Tokelau, Samoa’s joint initiative on OA monitoring with the Republic of Korea, and the recently published “Mainstreaming Ocean Acidification into National Policies” handbook on OA for the Pacific.

The NZPPOA project is a collaborative effort between the University of the South Pacific, the Pacific Community and SPREP, with funding support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand and the Government of the Principality of Monaco. It aims to build the resilience of Pacific island communities to OA and was developed in response to needs identified during the Third United Nations Small Islands States Conference in Apia in 2014.

Its focus is on research and monitoring, capacity and awareness building, and practical adaptation actions. The pilot sites for the practical adaptation actions were Fiji, Kiribati, and Tokelau, two of which were present at the side event this afternoon and presented on the progress of the work being done in their countries.  

OA monitoring buoys have been set up and deployed successfully in Palau, and will soon be set up in Samoa, and staff of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Samoa will have the responsibility to operate and maintain these buoy systems.