Jim DiPeso, 4/19/2012 [Archive]

Oysters and Acid Water Don't Mix

Oysters and Acid Water Don't Mix

By Jim DiPeso

Hey, oyster chugging champs - your glory days might be near an end. Clam lovers, you might need to find something else to put into your chowder.

The ocean is becoming more acidic. And that's bad news for oysters, clams, and other shellfish that are a tasty source of good food, high in protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

It's also bad news for coral reefs, which support fish populations that millions of people around the world rely on for their daily nutrition.

Why is this happening? Oceans absorb about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted when we burn fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Once in the water, CO2 forms an acid. When water becomes more acidic, there is less calcium for shellfish and coral to use for building shells and exoskeletons. Call it osteoporosis of the oceans.

The chemistry is as simple as 1, 2, 3. Any high school science student could show you how ocean acidification happens with a tabletop chemistry set.

Shellfish growers are worried. In 2006, oystermen along the coasts of Oregon and Washington watched in alarm as oyster larva in commercial hatcheries died en masse. Scientists hypothesized that acidic water had impeded shell formation.

A recently released study conducted at the Whiskey Creek Hatchery on Oregon's coast confirmed their hunch was correct. Too much acidity in seawater welling up from the depths retarded shell formation and oyster growth to the point which oyster raising was not economically viable.

In addition to threatening a food source, ocean acidification is bad economic news. Commercial oyster production returns more than a quarter-billion dollars per year to the economies of America's West Coast states.

We don't eat coral, but coral also is vitally important for supplying food, since many fish we eat cluster around coral reefs.

Coral reefs also are economic assets for tourism-dependent communities in the U.S. and other countries. The reefs off the Florida Keys, for example, generate more than $1 billion per year from visitors who come to fish, snorkel, dive, kayak, and sightsee.

The ocean acidification problem has been building for decades. Since the industrial age began, scientists estimate the oceans have become about 30 percent more acidic.

We don't fully understand yet how more acidic seas will affect marine life. Still, the early signs are worrisome. And at present rates of carbon dioxide emissions, the seas' acidity could more than double by the turn of the century.

That can't be good. Since present levels of acidity are bad for shellfish production, higher levels likely would be worse. Acidic waters also add to the stress on shellfish from water pollution and toxic algae blooms.

Not an oyster eater? Thinking we could get by in a world without enough shellfish to eat? Perhaps, but it's not just your oyster chugging neighbors who would be impacted by acidification.

The ocean's entire web of life is being altered in a way that endangers the many valuable services the oceans provide, from food on our tables to medicines in our bathroom cabinets to shoreline erosion protection. A planet with unhealthy oceans would not be a pretty outcome for any of us.

Squandering a big portion of the world's natural bounty is not a sensible option. What we have broken, we have a moral obligation to fix.

Prudently lowering the carbon-heavy portions of our energy diet would safeguard our planet, and all of us who inhabit it, from a less abundant future.

It would also secure a lasting place for oysters, clams, and other shellfish on the world's dinner tables. Now, pass the dipping sauce.


©Copyright 2012 Jim DiPeso, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Jim DiPeso is vice president for policy and communications at ConservAmerica. Jim can be reached at jdipeso@conservamerica.org.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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