Over a decade ago, California sea urchin diver Bruce Steele discovered a scientific paper suggesting that sea urchins-the source of his livelihood-were facing a new threat called ocean acidification. At the time, there was very little research or information being shared among the West Coast fishing industry about how this change in ocean chemistry caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide emissions could impact sea urchins or other species.
Steele was hoping that the West Coast states could join together to address the potential impacts from ocean acidification to shellfish and fisheries. Former Director of California Sea Grant Russ Moll connected Steele to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association to coordinate an industry response. This group was worried about the large scale die-offs at oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest that first started in 2006. There was still disagreement over the cause, but some were starting to propose that it was from acidified ocean water, which could be corrosive to settling oyster larvae.
In 2010, growing concern about the impacts of ocean acidification prompted the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) to host the Ocean Acidification Impacts on Shellfish Workshop, supported through California Ocean Science Trust, the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS) program, and the four West Coast Sea Grant programs. The workshop brought together scientists, government representatives, and industry members, including Steele and his wife Diane Pleschner-Steele, Executive Director of the California Wetfish Producers Association.
Several important presentations helped the workshop attendees definitively conclude that the oyster hatchery failures were a result of ocean acidification. Dr. Richard Feely, senior scientist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, highlighted data from a 2007 NOAA research cruise, which measured evidence of acidified seawater off the West Coast. Alan Barton from Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery shared important results from his study that showed oysters were sensitive to ocean acidification. Over the course of the workshop, the participants were able to definitively say that the oyster hatchery failures were a result of ocean acidification. As the ocean acidifies from absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it becomes harder for oysters and other shellfish to build their calcium carbonate shells because carbonate ions (their building blocks) become less available.
One of the biggest successes of the workshop was the connections made between industry and scientists. Discussions at the workshop fostered collaborations with industry members that led to the establishment of cooperative monitoring at hatcheries, where industry members were able to help scientists validate sensors for monitoring in coastal areas. This collaboration was essential in developing an ocean acidification monitoring roadmap for the West Coast. Steve Weisberg, Executive Director of SCCWRP, described, “The biggest problem was that most of the monitoring was taking place off-shore, since it wasn’t thought of as a coastal issue. We had to figure out how to move the monitoring closer to shore.”
Collaboration between the three regional IOOS Associations along the Pacific coast with shellfish growers and NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program has led to ocean acidification variables being monitored on existing coastal buoys and within shellfish growers’ hatcheries and grow-out areas. Monitoring in real-time has allowed hatcheries to instantly detect corrosive conditions and react by buffering water or choosing a different time to intake sea water. This gave shellfish growers a strategy to avoid the impacts of acidified seawater moving forward. This workshop was also where industry members learned that they needed to know aragonite saturation state of the water, a measurement that helps indicate how at risk calcifying animals are from acidifying water.
Steele and other industry members saw how valuable this collaboration and information exchange was and wanted to keep the momentum going. This call for continued collaboration between industry and scientists led to the creation of the California Current Acidification Network (C-CAN).
Engaging industry members remains a top priority for C-CAN as they expand ocean acidification monitoring beyond measuring the chemistry of the seawater to include biological measurements as well, such as measuring abundance of phytoplankton, which make up the base of the ocean food web or shell dissolution of pteropods (a calcified zooplankter), as an indicator for ocean acidification. C-CAN is working to identify biological thresholds and indicator species that when monitored can give an indication of how the marine ecosystem is being impacted by ocean acidification. Pleschner-Steele highlights how crucial it is to partner with fisherpeople, saying, “It’s important to engage the fishermen and document what they’re seeing in the water.” As they keep collaboration at the forefront, C-CAN is continuing to advance their monitoring roadmap as they look ahead.
Today, there are six different Coastal Acidification Networks representing different regions of the country, and C-CAN is the only one directly initiated by industry members. The group continues to bring together industry members and scientists, along with federal, state, and tribal governments to address the impacts of ocean acidification to the West Coast.
Title image: Avery Resor and Catherine O'Hare check the lines of Gracilaria on Hog Island Oyster Farm. Credit: Shaun Wolfe Image 1: Diver holds red sea urchin while diving on California Coast Credit: California Sea Grant/liamkmc/iNaturalist Image 2: Thomas Grimm, owner of the Carlsbad Aquafarm, shows the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS) team the Floating Upwelling System (FLUPSY) he employs to grow young oysters. Credit: Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing SystemImage 3: Whiskey Creek and other hatcheries have installed continuous water monitoring and treatment systems. Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Vance Image 4: 'Ocean coast California" Credit: Foundry