Biological Responses to Ocean Acidification

Understanding the effects of ocean acidification on marine species is essential to promote adaptation that sustains coastal communities, maintain the vitality of the state’s seafood and marine recreation industries, and meet recovery goals for endangered species. Importantly, knowing more about how ocean acidification affects biology provides critical information for natural resource managers and others concerned with ocean acidification impacts.

The Washington Ocean Acidification Center and its partners study the effects of ocean acidification on numerous species that are ecologically and commercially important to the state of Washington. In particular, the Center has conducted laboratory studies on krill, zooplankton, Dungeness crab, Olympia oysters, Coho salmon and sablefish. The results of their work with numerous partners have led to discoveries that shed light on the Salish Sea ecosystem, helping to guide marine resource management. The Center continues to work with the Washington State Legislature, tribal entities, agency partners, stakeholders and others to advance this work.


Predictive Modeling for Corrosive Marine Waters

The marine waters of Washington state can often be corrosive to shelled animals such as clams and oysters, especially when they are very young. Corrosive conditions are driven by natural variability combined with an increase in the acidity of ocean waters. This threatens marine ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, and poses a significant barrier to shellfish growers and the sustainability of their business. The natural set of young oysters in Washington can be highly variable, and the hatcheries that supply young oysters to growers have lost oysters when especially corrosive waters are drawn in from the nearby ocean.

In order for the shellfish industry to respond to the threats posed by ocean acidification, improved information is critical. The Washington Ocean Acidification Center has provided support for monitoring of seawater conditions around the state and at hatcheries, and has developed a tool that provides forecasts of ocean conditions. The tool shows ocean currents, temperature, salinity and ocean chemistry daily and up to two days in the future, allowing growers to see when conditions will be favorable for their operations. The Washington Ocean Acidification Center has partnered with UW’s Coastal Modeling Group to develop this tool, and current efforts are underway to expand its scope and use.


Co-locating Field Observations with Biological Sampling

Combining observations of seawater chemistry with biological samples taken in the same place and at the same time offers a powerful means of assessing the status and trends of ocean acidification and its impacts in Washington waters. Such observations can enhance our understanding of underlying processes and contribute to responsive management of Washington’s marine resources and adaptive strategies.

The Washington Ocean Acidification Center works with partners to initiate new observations and expand current monitoring activities. In 2014, the Center collaborated with NOAA and other partners to establish a sustained seasonal field sampling program in Washington waters. This investment has yielded valuable data on seawater chemistry plus information on selected species of zooplankton, including pteropods, which serve as highly sensitive indicators of biological responses to ocean acidification. Zooplankton abundance is critical to the persistence of forage fish species, salmon species, and marine birds and mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. Robust commercial and recreational fisheries rely on healthy zooplankton populations. Data collected by the Washington Ocean Acidification Center and its partners been shared with the U.S. EPA and the Washington State Department of Ecology for their use in assessing Washington’s water quality and biological impacts associated ocean acidification.

The backbone of the monitoring system that now exists can be strategically leveraged to support co-location of field observations and biological sampling. Continuation of these time series will provide data that allows state and tribal managers and others to better understand the dynamics of regional food webs under changing ocean conditions.

The Center and its NOAA partners work with shellfish growers to sustain seawater monitoring in shellfish hatcheries and at grow-out sites in the Salish Sea and Willapa Bay. The data collected help shellfish growers improve production while helping scientists and others to deepen their understanding of seawater conditions from ocean to nearshore.


Partnering with indigenous communities to anticipate and adapt to ocean change

Fishing boats at the Quileute Harbor Marina. Melissa Poe/Washington Sea Grant

The productive ocean off Washington state’s Olympic Coast supports an abundant web of life including kelp forests, fish, shellfish, seabirds and marine mammals. The harvest and use of these treaty-protected marine resources have been central to the local tribes’ livelihoods, food security and cultural practices for thousands of years. But ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of these waters, putting many coastal species – and the human communities that depend upon them – under threat. Scientists from around UW, including at the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, have teamed up with federal and tribal partners to study the social and ecological vulnerabilities of Olympic Coast ocean acidification.


Developing capacity for ocean acidification observations in the Western Indian Ocean

On the heels of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – otherwise known as Rio +20 – the UN established development goals centered around people, planet and prosperity. Among these is Goal 14, aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources. The goal calls out addressing the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, among others.

Little is known about how ocean acidification is unfolding is the Western Indian Ocean. In an effort to boost our understanding, numerous stakeholders and scientists — including EarthLab’s Healthy Oceans co-director Jan Newton — convened in Tanzania to discuss how to improve knowledge on the current and expected impacts of ocean acidification on marine life in the region.


The great nutrient collapse

Irakli Loladze is a mathematician by training, but he was in a biology lab when he encountered the puzzle that would change his life. It was in 1998, and Loladze was studying for his Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Against a backdrop of glass containers glowing with bright green algae, a biologist told Loladze and a half-dozen other graduate students that scientists had discovered something mysterious about zooplankton.


Ocean acidification study offers warnings for marine life, habitats

Acidification of the world’s oceans could drive a cascading loss of biodiversity in some marine habitats, according to research published Nov. 21 in Nature Climate Change.

The work by biodiversity researchers from the University of British Columbia, the University of Washington and colleagues in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Japan and China, combines dozens of existing studies to paint a more nuanced picture of the impact of ocean acidification.

While most research in the field focuses on the impact of ocean acidification on individual species, the new work predicts how acidification will affect the living habitats such as corals, seagrasses and kelp forests that form the homes of other ocean species.

“This work demonstrates the value of international collaborations to address a problem that’s global in scope and crosses boundaries between distinct habitats and ecosystems,” said co-author Terrie Klinger, professor and director of the UW’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs who also co-directs the Washington Ocean Acidification Center. “We can begin to test predictions with data from different locations to better understand likely ecosystem responses to ocean acidification.”