The die-off of oyster larvae in the Pacific Northwest has implications for oyster growers in places as far away as Homer, Alaska, since they traditionally buy their spat from Washington and Oregon farms. Out on the Homer spit, a slim strip of land jutting out into Kachemak Bay, the Kachemak Shellfish Growers cooperative office now boasts a small hatchery where it hopes to produce 3 million spat this year.
“We just can’t rely on the Lower 48 anymore,” said co-op manager Sean Crosby, whose group recieved $150,000 in federal funds over the past two years to start up and run the hatchery. “Even though we’re not seeing ocean acidification in Kachemak Bay, we’re feeling its effects.”
Alaska and the NOAA are jointly funding four buoys throughout the state to monitor pH levels, while other NOAA scientists are testing how species such as surf smelt would likely gain from a lower pH because they thrive under those conditions, while others, including dungeness crab, would lose.
These species interact with each other, which is why ocean acidification could have such large ripple effects. The highly vulnerable pteropods, for example, can make up as much as 40 percent of the diet of Alaska’s juvenile pink salmon.
“When you ask why does ocean acidification matter, often we’re interested because of the fish we eat and the things we make money off of,” said Shallin Busch, a research ecologist at the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Other species, such as purple sea urchins off California’s coast, have shown some genetic capacity to adapt to more acidic conditions, in part because they are periodically exposed to corrosive waters. Hofmann described her job as seeking an answer to the question, “Will there be sushi?”
“The question is, can they adapt quickly enough in this rapidly changing environment?” Hofmann asked. “And the answer, at least in the case of sea urchins, could be yes.”