Science Superheroes

Confronting Ocean Acidification

Brett Leuenberger
Mar 3, 2017 · 17 min read
Maine Coastal Estuary — Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Shield Art — Credit: Shutterstock

Written by: Brett Leuenberger

The Gulf of Maine, a Gulf Like No Other

Its hidden treasures revered, northward bound lie pristine shorelines resonating with the history of Maine’s coastal bounty. The crescendo of the Appalachians, Mt. Katahdin, lies in the watershed of the mighty Penobscot, one of the numerous rivers that feed the teeming Gulf of Maine. The American lobster, quahog, blue mussel, northern shrimp, sea scallop, and oyster all thrive within Maine’s fertile gulf and coastal estuaries.

Coastal Maine Fishing Fleet — Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The State of Maine relies on the seafood economy. Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR) reported a bumper commercial seafood harvest of over $700 million in 2016. This includes a record-breaking $533 million generated from Maine’s lobster industry. Such a dramatic increase in Maine’s lobster catch is a consequence of lobsters migrating north to escape the warming coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean caused by global climate change.

American Lobster — Photo Credit: Markus_76/Flickr Creative Commons

These lobsters are climate refugees from New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. “Coastal southern New England” according to marine scientist Richard Wahle of The University of Maine, “will no longer be a hospitable nursery to the American lobster in the coming decades.” In fact, southern New England’s seafood industry is already reeling. With the continued warming of the Gulf of Maine and the northward migration of the American lobster, Maine’s lobster industry faces an uncertain future.

Gulf of Maine Map — Photo Credit: Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment

Patrick Keliher, Maine’s DMR Commissioner, praises an astounding seafood bounty that contains an air of caution. “While we can take this moment to celebrate the great value of Maine’s marine resources,” says Keliher, “We cannot lose sight of the signs of change.” The DMR and the industry, says Keliher, “must work to not only safeguard our iconic lobster fishery but also to work together on solutions that ensure the health and resiliency of all Maine fisheries.”

While we can celebrate the great value of Maine’s marine resources, we cannot lose sight of the signs of change.


The Tide is Turning, Ocean Acidification

Aside from the perils of ocean warming, ocean acidification is a more insidious symptom of climate change, causing ecological havoc in the Gulf of Maine and all oceans. Ocean acidification can be attributed to the decrease in the pH of our planet’s oceans, caused by the excess uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Normally our oceans work as a natural buffer, sequestering CO2, but our excessive greenhouse gas emissions over the past 200 years have pushed our oceans to a new tipping point. They can no longer absorb excess CO2 without having extensive effects on ocean life as we know it. Acidification in the Gulf of Maine is an early indicator of what is happening more slowly on a global scale.

Shell Eroding Over Time in Low pH Seawater — Photo Credit: PMEL/NOAA

The profusion of carbon in our oceans causes them to acidify and creates a carbonic acid that disrupts the early stage development of most shellfish species. Dr. Mark Green of Saint Joseph’s College in Maine explains in his video how quickly larval-stage clam shells can erode (within 72 hours) from the affects of ocean acidification.

“Hatcheries are the canary in the coal mine for the shellfish industry,” says Bill Mook, an aquaculture oyster grower from Walpole, Maine. “Because of our level of control, we can see problems that others might not — and we are seeing really big problems,” says Mook in a Boston Globe article. Because of ocean acidification, most of Maine’s shellfish industry must control their shellfish larval-stage growth in a closely monitored aquaculture environment.

Hatcheries are the canary in the coal mine for the shellfish industry. Because of our level of control, we can see problems that others might not — and we are seeing really big problems.

Quahog Clams — Photo Credit: Jessica Langlois/Flickr Creative Commons

The Gulf of Maine is extremely vulnerable to the affects of ocean acidification. Scientists and aquaculture farmers are now working together to address the ecological and economic impacts of ocean acidification by performing the critical research and data collection needed to offer solutions to mitigate its long-term environmental impacts.


Dr. Arnold Photo Credit: Island Institute

Science Superhero, Dr. Suzanne Arnold

Dr. Suzanne Arnold, Marine Scientist at Island Institute, is studying the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on Maine’s ocean resources. Dr. Arnold was one of the contributing scientists that helped produce the Final Report of the Commission to Study the Effects of Coastal and Ocean Acidification and its Existing and Potential Effects on Species that are Commercially Harvested and Grown Along the Maine Coast.

“Ocean acidification is caused primarily by the absorption of CO2 in ocean water. It changes the chemistry of the ocean water causing it to become more acidic,” Dr. Arnold explained. Ocean acidification can be worse in coastal areas because of excessive nutrient runoff from pollutants like untreated sewage and lawn fertilizers.

80% of Maine’s seafood economy is from shell-builders that are highly susceptible to ocean acidification. Bivalves like oysters, clams and mussels have a harder time developing their shells; coastal acidification would jeopardize those animals in coastal ecosystems.

“Atmospheric CO2 emissions are the primary cause of ocean acidification,” Dr. Arnold explained, “It sure is impacting the Gulf of Maine.” Dr. Arnold revealed that freshwater is more acidic than seawater, and seawater becomes more acidic as it gets colder. The Gulf of Maine is geographically more vulnerable to ocean acidification because of the abundance of freshwater inflows from coastal rivers and the cold Labrador Currents of the Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. Arnold pointed out there are four drivers exacerbating ocean acidification in the Gulf of Maine: atmospheric CO2, cold water, freshwater inflows and runoff from land-based pollutants.

More Carbon Emissions Means More Ocean Acidification

Humankind’s seemingly insatiable dependence on carbon-based fuel is causing the silent death of marine shellfish worldwide and disrupting Maine’s local seafood economy. CO2 is the culprit; coal, natural gas, fuel oil, gasoline and biomass emissions all add to ocean acidification. Twenty-five percent of all CO2 emissions will eventually be absorbed in the oceans, exacerbating acidification on a global scale.

We’re putting far too much CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Moving toward emission-free renewables like wind and solar would certainly help reduce ocean acidification levels.

Combined Coal/Woody Biomass Power Plant — Photo Credit: Shutterstock

“Absolutely, you nailed it. Anything that produces CO2 is adding to ocean acidification,” Dr. Arnold explained. She mentioned how Maine uses a lot of heating oil and transitioning away from that would help, but she was not sure about the CO2 contribution from bioenergy. “We’re putting far too much CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels,” Dr. Arnold said, “Moving toward emission-free renewables like wind and solar would certainly help reduce ocean acidification levels.”

Maine’s Commission Report on Ocean Acidification

Dr. Arnold’s passion for studying ocean acidification afforded her the opportunity to collaborate with fellow scientists, aquaculture growers, fisherman and lawmakers to establish an ocean acidification commission in Maine. This was the nation’s first such commission, which studied the state of the science and goals to address ocean acidification within the Gulf of Maine. Six recommendations from the commission report include:

  1. Invest in Maine’s capacity to monitor and investigate the effects of ocean acidification and determine impacts of ocean acidification on commercially important species and the mechanisms behind the impacts;
  2. Reduce emissions of carbon dioxide;
  3. Identify and reduce local land-based nutrients and organic carbon that contribute to ocean acidification by strengthening and augmenting existing pollution reduction efforts;
  4. Increase Maine’s capacity to mitigate, remediate and adapt to the impacts of ocean acidification;
  5. Inform stakeholders, the public and decision-makers about ocean acidification in Maine and empower them to take action; and
  6. Maintain a sustained and coordinated focus on ocean acidification.

Dr. Arnold noted that although Maine’s legislature did not fund further research from the ocean acidification commission, a public-private partnership was established called the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA), which is an extension of The University of Maine and funded by NOAA Maine Sea Grant. MOCA coordinates ocean acidification research between state agencies, academics, non-profits and volunteers.

Sugar Kelp — Photo Credit: NHSeaGrant/Flickr Creative Commons

Dr. Arnold is working on groundbreaking research using aquaculture as a means to reduce local ocean acidification levels. Her research is focused on how the cultivation of aquatic plants and animals can help mitigate ocean acidification levels in the Gulf of Maine.

In a recent National Geographic article, Seaweed Farming May Be the Prescription for Troubled Waters, Dr. Arnold points out that kelp farms are actually absorbing CO2 from ocean water, as well as producing oxygen. She is studying the symbiotic interactions between sugar kelp and mussels. Using a new underwater CO2 and pH sensing device, Dr. Arnold is able to gather critical data for her aquaculture research. This seems like an ingenious and natural way to combat ocean acidification, while supporting the emerging aquaculture industry. In fact, Maine kelp farming is expanding as chefs and culinary markets offer its tasty cuisine.


Dr. Mayer Photo Credit: The University of Maine

Science Superhero, Dr. Lawrence Mayer

Dr. Lawrence Mayer is a Professor of Oceanography at Darling Marine Center at The University of Maine. Dr. Mayer was also one of the contributing scientists that helped produce the Final Report of the Commission to Study the Effects of Coastal and Ocean Acidification and its Existing and Potential Effects on Species that are Commercially Harvested and Grown Along the Maine Coast.

“Whenever you mine fossil fuels out of the ground, what you’re doing is harvesting old plant production from millions of years ago and burning it in a power plant that short circuits the ocean process,” Dr. Mayer explained, “Oil, coal, gasoline and natural gas, are all major sources of CO2.”

“If a log was ordinarily going to decay over the course of several tens of years, as you would naturally see in a forest, and instead you chop it down and burn it up in a week — then what you’ve done is focused that production of carbon dioxide into a shorter timescale,” Dr. Mayer described. Something that would have taken a long time to decay now pushes that carbon into the atmosphere all at once.

The same argument applies to the phenomenon of freshwater sources, “Over the last several years we’ve seen rainfall come down in shorter and more intense storms, which increases ocean acidification,” Dr. Mayer revealed.

If a log was ordinarily going to decay over the course of several tens of years, as you would naturally see in a forest, and instead you chop it down and burn it up in a week — then what you’ve done is focused that production of carbon dioxide into a shorter timescale.

In terms of how ocean acidification is affecting regional commercial fishing within the Gulf of Maine, Dr. Mayer said that most research and funding on the topic goes toward the understanding of shell-builders. These are the species most at risk. But other factors could also affect the local seafood industry, such as ocean warming and species invasion. “There’s a lot of things going on out there,” Dr. Mayer said, “and nature is not a very good controlled experiment.”

Blue Mussels in Belfast Bay, Maine — Photo Credit: Brett Leuenberger

Through his work with a group of citizen scientists, Dr. Mayer described a “possibly interesting phenomenon” seen over the past three years. They made a groundbreaking discovery; lower levels of acidic water were coming from the open ocean instead of land based sources.

“It’s possible when you have higher rainfall you import more water into these estuaries,” Dr. Mayer said, “Because you have more freshwater out on the surface; that forces the outside water to come in on the bottom.” Dr. Mayer said, “It’s a fascinating possibility that rainfall might have a control on acidity in the estuaries from a completely different angle than we thought before.” The revelation of Dr. Mayer’s rainfall observations highlights the critical need for more funding of ocean acidification research.


Dr. White Photo Credit: Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Science Superhero, Dr. Meredith White

Dr. Meredith White is a Research Scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Dr. White was also one of the contributing scientists that helped produce the Final Report of the Commission to Study the Effects of Coastal and Ocean Acidification and its Existing and Potential Effects on Species that are Commercially Harvested and Grown Along the Maine Coast.

“I don’t think there’s anything particularly that sets Maine apart from other regions in terms of producing carbon dioxide emissions.” Dr. White replied, “Certainly a lot of people in Maine heat their homes with firewood. That’s not really considered a major source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere on a geological scale.”

Dr. White further explained, “That’s carbon that was CO2 in the atmosphere and was turned into the organic biomass of a tree, and burning it releases the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere but it’s not CO2 that was sequestered from millions of years, as fossil fuel. So in the timeframe that we’re thinking about, it doesn’t really impact the global CO2 atmospheric concentrations.”

Certainly a lot of people in Maine heat their homes with firewood. That’s not really considered a major source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere on a geological scale.

“The time that it takes for living trees to sequester carbon dioxide and turn it into biomass, and then for us to burn those trees and release the carbon dioxide back to the environment — that is not pushing the carbon dioxide balance out of equilibrium.” Dr. White explained.

Dr. White brings up a valid point about biomass carbon emissions. However, a counterpoint is that fossil fuel CO2 emissions are now an abnormal part of the active carbon cycle. Trees sequester CO2, which includes the carbon from fossil fuel emissions, and when burned as biomass energy will immediately release all of that extra carbon back into the atmosphere again.

“Virtually any species and ecosystem can be affected by ocean acidification.” Dr. White explained that shell-building mollusks in their early development are most at risk. Crustaceans like lobsters and crabs are more resilient to the affects of ocean acidification because their shells are made of an organic material called chitin, as well as calcium carbonate. However, Dr. White explained that lobsters are facing a rapid decline in their population because of the rising ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.

Dr. White responded, “Yes, ocean acidification from carbon dioxide emissions is absolutely a global problem.” Several warm water species of coral are more vulnerable to ocean acidification and ocean temperature changes that may cause massive coral bleaching events, Dr. White added.

Yes, ocean acidification from carbon dioxide emissions is absolutely a global problem.

“Yes, I think that looking at local actions is really important because that is something people can relate to.” Dr. White points out, “Friends of Casco Bay have a campaign called ‘BayScaping’ that encourages homeowners to reduce the use of fertilizers on their lawns.”

“Raising larvae in controlled hatchery conditions can be a really effective technique to produce more aquaculture, but could also be used to supplement wild populations,” Dr. White explained.


Chris Vonderweidt Photo Credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Science Superhero, Chris Vonderweidt

Chris Vonderweidt is the Aquaculture Program Manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Mr. Vonderweidt explained that aquaculture growers were taking measures to ensure the survival of their larval shellfish by regulating the seawater pH and temperature in a controlled lab. “We have a tremendous public health system here in Maine where the Marine Resources department has a proactive regulatory plan in place for shellfish,” Mr. Vonderweidt said.

Maine Aquaculture, Kelp Line — Photo Credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Mr. Vonderweidt reaffirms the industry’s hard work, “Bill Mook is as good of a scientist as exists in the aquaculture industry. They’ve been sampling the pH of the water over time, and so they have this historic data set and noticed that the pH is increasing.”

Aquaculture Grown Oyster — Photo Credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Bill Mook is as good of a scientist as exists in the aquaculture industry. They’ve been sampling the pH of the water over time, and so they have this historic data set and noticed that the pH is increasing.

Mr. Vonderweidt responded, “Yes, it certainly has that potential to help mitigate ocean acidification. It remains to be seen how much affect it can have, but shellfish and kelp uptake carbon; so it’s going to have some impact.” Mr. Vonderweidt added that aquaculture can also provide vital ecosystem benefits like nutrient filtration and creating new structure for fish habitat.

Local Maine Merchandiser Display Board — Photo Credit: Brett Leuenberger

“The markets are unlimited for new products like the sea scallop, which is considered to be the Rolls Royce of the industry. Maine has a great opportunity to grow and commercialize the scallop sector,” Mr. Vonderweidt explained. He also revealed the aquaculture industry can act as a healthy incubator that regenerates wild populations of shellfish in declining estuary habitats of the Gulf of Maine.

Maine Aquaculture — Photo Credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Dr. Runge Photo Credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Science Superhero, Dr. Jeffrey Runge

Dr. Jeffrey Runge is a Biological Oceanography Research Scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. “Yes, the pH will decline. The Gulf of Maine is more vulnerable and doesn’t quite have the buffering capacity that other bodies of water have, so you may see more long-term sensitivity to CO2 in the water than other places in the world,” Dr. Runge replied.

“We know that the colder water absorbs more CO2 than warmer water,” Dr. Runge said, “Theoretically, warmer water will somewhat mitigate the affects of ocean acidification. But right now our concern is in the cold Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, which hold more CO2 and amplify ocean acidification in those regions.”

The Gulf of Maine is more vulnerable and doesn’t quite have the buffering capacity that other bodies of water have, so you may see more long-term sensitivity to CO2 in the water than other places in the world.

“Our research found that the dominant planktonic copepods and some fish species were not affected directly by pH.” Dr. Runge explains, “In fact, it may be that the lower pH actually enhances the growth of copepods.” Dr. Runge’s research shows that some species are able to better adapt to changing pH levels in seawater.

Maine Aquaculture — Photo Credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute

Dr. Runge reveals more, “All our experimental studies and predictions are limited by our knowledge. What we need is a really strong observing system, which we don’t have in the Gulf of Maine. That to me is the most fundamental issue that we have right now, and with the changes in the environment—we don’t really know what is happening out there.”

“There is a study at the University of Connecticut where they are rearing zooplankton copepods through multiple generations to understand their capacity to adapt, which is tremendous,” Dr. Runge explained.

“Never have the oceans experienced such a rapid decline in pH as they will be — due to this CO2 warming. This is unprecedented in the history of the Earth.” Dr. Runge related how important it is for him to effectively monitor species adaptation to the changing conditions caused by ocean acidification.

Never have the oceans experienced such a rapid decline in pH as they will be due to this CO2 warming. This is unprecedented in the history of the Earth.

Ocean Monitoring Buoy — Photo Credit: NOAA

Eyes & Ears, The Integrated Sentinel Monitoring Network

Dr. Runge revealed a plan called the Integrated Sentinel Monitoring Network, or more specifically, the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, (NERACOOS), that would be the eyes and ears of the Gulf of Maine to monitor ocean acidification more effectively.

This monitoring network would be a critical link in collecting data about specific species adaptation and seawater conditions. Dr. Runge proclaimed, “We can speculate and say that evolution is robust. But can it adapt, and what parts of the species will adapt and what won’t?”

Dr. Runge continued, but without the monitoring network, “It’s going to be really hard to say what’s going to happen. That’s why we need to document this — in a timely way so we don’t realize ten or twenty years after it’s happened, that it’s happening. I’m a big proponent of advocating for an effective observing system.”

Gulf of Maine Ocean Currents — Photo Credit: NERACOOS Implementation Study

It’s going to be really hard to say what’s going to happen. That’s why we need to document this — in a timely way so we don’t realize ten or twenty years after it’s happened, that it’s happening. I’m a big proponent of advocating for an effective observing system.

Dr. Runge replied, “No, there isn’t a lot of data there. That’s the one thing I think we need to get out to our representatives; the alarming need we have for an ocean observing network.” He continued his point, “Ocean acidification is one specific problem, but the focus has to be sent into a broader concern of how environmental changes are going to affect our ecosystems and the services they provide.”

Maine Needs More Ocean Acidification Research Funding

These dedicated science superheroes, Dr. Arnold, Dr. Mayer, Dr. White, Chris Vonderweidt and Dr. Runge, are working diligently to provide the scientific research needed to offer real solutions to reduce the impacts of ocean acidification. Whether it’s fostering seawater carbon reduction with aquaculture, working to extend an advanced monitoring network, reducing land-based pollutants and CO2 emissions or predicting coastal acidification from extreme weather events; this is the hard work in the trenches they’re doing every day.

The importance of maintaining a healthy marine environment and controlling ocean acidification is critical to Maine’s seafood economy. With the recent news about the possible funding cuts for the NOAA Sea Grant program, we need to further our resolve to keep our scientists well funded so they can continue their important ocean acidification research work that ensures the future health of the Gulf of Maine.



A special thanks to these ocean research institutions.

A special thanks to my academic and science advisors: Dr. James Spartz and Dr. Emma Perry.


Sources:

Maine’s 2016 Commercial Marine Resources Top $700 Million for the First Time. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.maine.gov/dmr/news-details.html?id=732546

(n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://umaine.edu/wahlelab/

Bill MookSpecial to the Press Herald. (2017, March 11). Pruitt ignoring science consensus could have dire consequences for Maine — Portland Press Herald. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.pressherald.com/2017/03/11/maine-voices-pruitt-ignoring-science-consensus-could-have-dire-consequences-for-maine/

2016 proves a record year for Maine’s fishing industry. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.mainebiz.biz/article/20170306/NEWS0101/170309966/2016-proves-a-record-year-for-maine's-fishing-industry

(n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/Ocean Carbon Uptake

S. (2011, April 21). Maine Ocean Acidification with Mark Green. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwZxq5sKLuI

07, 2. D. (2015, March 07). As oceans become more acidic, fears rise in the shellfish industry — The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/03/07/oceans-become-more-acidic-fears-rise-shellfish-industry/Jsb67Ckm9iz5VD3uSXR4mN/story.html

Final Report of the COMMISSION TO STUDY THE EFFECTS OF COASTAL AND OCEAN ACIDIFICATION AND ITS EXISTING AND POTENTIAL EFFECTS ON SPECIES THAT ARE COMMERCIALLY HARVESTED AND GROWN ALONG THE MAINE COAST. (2015, January). Retrieved May 7, 2017, from http://www.maine.gov/legis/opla/Oceanacidificationreport.pdf

Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA). (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.seagrant.umaine.edu/extension/maine-ocean-and-coastal-acidification-partnership

Seaweed Farming May Be the Prescription for Troubled Waters. (2016, January 14). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/13/seaweed-farming-may-be-the-prescription-for-troubled-waters/

Sustainability & Farming. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.oceanapproved.com/sustainability/

Maine PUC publishes renewable energy report @BiomassMagazine. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://biomassmagazine.com/articles/13113/maine-puc-publishes-renewable-energy-report

Press, A. (2016, September 24). Baby lobsters in hot water as ocean temperatures rise. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/24/lobsters-climate-change-oceans-marine-life-seafood-research

BayScaping. (2016, October 19). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://cascobay.org/bayscaping/

University of Connecticut UC — Ann Bucklin. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://marinesciences.uconn.edu/faculty/bucklin/

Integrated Sentinel Monitoring Network for Change in Northeast U.S. Ocean and Coastal Ecosystems | NERACOOS. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.neracoos.org/sentinelmonitoring

U.S. Energy Information Administration — EIA — Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=26152

NOAA Ocean Acidification Program — OAP. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://oceanacidification.noaa.gov/

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade