Here Are the States—and Dinner Plates—That Will Be Hit Hardest by Acidifying Oceans

The Pacific Northwest is already feeling it, and most of the United States’ shellfish-producing coastal communities aren’t far behind.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Feb 23, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The rapid acidification of our oceans is making it harder for shellfish and crustaceans to make their shells, and that’s bad news for the United States’ $1 billion oyster and clam industry.

For seafood lovers, the findings most likely mean fewer ocean delicacies on your plate or at a higher price.

Now the latest national analysis shows which coastal communities are going to feel the economic pinch—and it’s not just the Pacific Northwest, where impacts are already being witnessed, says Julia Ekstrom, lead author of the National Resources Defense Council’s study.

“It’s already cost the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly $110 million and jeopardized about 3,200 jobs,” Ekstrom said in a statement. “Our research shows, for the first time, that many communities around the U.S. face similar risks.”

Ocean Acidification
(Infographic: NRDC.org)

We have ourselves to thank for the problem. The extra carbon emitted into the air from burning fossil fuels has to land somewhere, and with more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface covered in water, there’s a good chance the ocean is where it ends up. From there, it’s absorbed into the water and forms a weak acid. Mollusks are very sensitive to ocean acidification, but they are just the canary in the coal mine. If the ocean’s acidity continues to rise, crustaceans and coral reefs across the world could be devastated.

Sifting through social factors such as the levels of agricultural pollution, economic reliance on the shellfish industry, water temperatures, and overall preparedness have given scientists a better view of which geographic locations were most at risk from ocean acidification.

The most vulnerable spots include the bayous of Louisiana, the bays of northern New England, mid-Atlantic regions such as Chesapeake Bay, and the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Of the 23 locations pointed out in the study, 16 are expected to face ocean acidification levels deemed “unfavorable” to shellfish.

According to the study, communities heavily reliant on the shellfish industry are more vulnerable to ocean acidification and are some of the least prepared to fight it.

  • New England hot spots: Ports in Maine and southern Massachusetts are poorly buffered from polluted runoff from rivers flowing into the bays, where the colder waters are “especially enriched in acidifying carbon dioxide,” researchers wrote.
  • Mid-Atlantic trouble zones: Narragansett Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and the Long Island Sound were identified as hot spots for ocean acidification owing to the high levels of nitrogen pollution from nearby agriculture land, which has exacerbated acidification.
  • Gulf of Mexico: Louisiana’s Terrebonne and Plaquemines parishes are so reliant economically on the mollusk industry that any threat to the oysters would have a severe impact on the communities.
  • Pacific Northwest: The area already dealt with an oyster hatchery crisis in 2004, when baby oysters weren’t able to form their shells. About 80 percent of the hatchery died, threatening the region’s $100 million shellfish industry. Since then, industry workers, state officials, and scientists have worked to establish policies and practices that warn hatcheries when waters are becoming too corrosive for shellfish growth.

The ocean acidification issue has caught the eye of the Obama administration, which recently proposed increasing funding for research in the field from $8.5 million to $30 million per year for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.