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With Climate Change, No Happy Clams


Think for a minute about the victims of climate change. You might envision the polar bear, right? You see a lot of that in the news, atop a block of melting ice or - where there's no ice to grab onto, or the great ice sheet covering Greenland drip, drip, dripping away, or the tiny island of Tuvalu whose people and beaches might soon be swallowed by rising seas.

But today I want you to consider another victim, the humble oyster, because carbon emissions don't just mean a warmer planet. Ocean waters soak up some of that extra carbon, and the oceans are becoming slightly more acidic as a result, which means oysters and other shellfish could have a harder time rebuilding their shells.

In fact, shellfish producers right here in Washington are already trying to adapt, and my next guest is one of them. Benoit Eudeline is a hatchery production - the hatchery production and research director at the Taylor Shellfish Farm in Quilcene, Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Eudeline.

DR. BENOIT EUDELINE: Good morning.

FLATOW: Tell us about - we actually have - also with us is Richard Feely. He's senior scientist at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory here in Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RICHARD FEELY: It's an honor to be on your show.

FLATOW: And we have actually photos of the hatchery that we're going to be talking about at sciencefriday.com/oysters. And let's talk about that hatchery and ocean acidification. Richard, you've been measuring the pH, the acidity of the oceans. Tell us what you've seen. What's happening with the acidity there?

FEELY: Well, we've been looking at the pH of seawater and the carbon dioxide concentration of seawater for now close to 30 years, and it's been a work that I've done as part of my work in NOAA. And we worked together with about 15 different laboratories throughout the world in a World Ocean Circulation Experiment conducted back in the 1990s.

And now we continue that with some researchers as part of the international GO-SHIP program, and we've been studying the distribution of carbon dioxide throughout the world oceans. And we also monitor it in a number of hydrographic stations, time series stations throughout the world, and we can actually see the changes in pH over time. In fact, we now know explicitly from the measurements that the pH is changing about .02 pH units per decade.

FLATOW: What percentage is that?

FEELY: Well, over the last 15 years ago, that's about a 16 percent increase in the acidity of the oceans.


FEELY: And over - since the beginning of the pre-Industrial period, we have seen a .1 pH. Now, pH is a logarithmic scale, just like the Richter scale. So a tenfold increase in the concentration of this, of the acid, would represent one pH unit change.

And so what we have seen then is a 30 percent increase in the acidity of the ocean since the beginning of the pre-Industrial world, throughout the world, oceans and surface waters.

FLATOW: Wow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow at the Pacific Science Center. You're talking about ocean acidification.

And can a tiny change like that actually affect the life in the oceans? How important is that pH difference?

FEELY: Well, let's think of it this way. Everyone here has a very strongly controlled pH system in your body. It's - your pH in your blood is about 7.34, 7.35, something like that. And if you drop that pH by .2 pH units, what we might expect to see in the oceans in about four years, you would go into a coma. Your blood would still be basic, but a very small change in pH would have a huge impact in your body.

Same thing is true for many organisms, particularly organisms that produce a calcium carbonate shell or skeleton. They're very, very sensitive to these changes, particularly - and while they're still living. This is a case for the oysters. There are many species of calcifying organisms that we depend on for food. In fact, the seafood industry in the United States is about a $4 billion industry. And so we are seeing now impacts on those organisms, and so it's really a seafood security issue.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk right about that with Benoit. You're in hatchery production and research at the Taylor Shellfish Farms in Quilcene, Washington. Have things changed there for oyster growers?

EUDELINE: Yes, definitely. You know, in - things - I've always been a little bit bumpy in this business. And I've been doing this for 20 years, and we have been having problems on and off. But since 2009, or in 2009 we really started to observe prolonged problem with larvae. Instead of being just a week or so, it was several months. And so, you know, initially we had literally no clue what was going on, and the, you know, hatcheries started to come together and look into and share...

FLATOW: What does it look like? When you see something's going on, what does that mean?

EUDELINE: Well, basically larvae mortality or larvae not growing. You know, shellfish, we have a hatchery, so we produce larvae the first three weeks of their life cycle, swimming cycle. And they were just, you know, either dying, so we have observed it in 2009, about a 60 percent reduction in production. And...

FLATOW: Sixty percent.

EUDELINE: Sixty percent, yeah. We...

FLATOW: That's amazing.

EUDELINE: It's - it was a huge drop. And the big difference, it was sustained, you know, for many months at a time. And we - and there are three main big hatcheries on the West Coast producing shellfish larvae, and two of them that we know of observed the same problems, and Whiskey Creek Hatchery in Tillamook, Oregon, was the other one.


EUDELINE: Sharing notes, and they were working at the time with OSU, Oregon State University in (unintelligible), and they started to note that the pH of incoming water in their bay was highly fluctuating. And to be fair, at the time we did not know a ton about carbonate chemistry, but they kind of started to put two and two together and realized that maybe the viability in carbon - calcium carbonate was a problem.

FLATOW: Yeah, and that's one of - yeah. You can put two and two together. We're going to take a break and come back more, talk about the problem with the shellfish and why acidification of the oceans is becoming a real problem for the shellfish themselves and for you who like to eat shellfish, because they're dying away here in the hatcheries.

You can also ask questions here in our studio audience, a big studio in the auditorium at the Pacific Science Center. And also you can tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the acidification of the oceans. And a good place to talk about it here is at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, talking with Benoit Eudeline. He is a hatchery production, a research director at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Quilcene, Washington. Richard Feely is Senior Scientist at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory here in Seattle.

And Benoit was telling us about how the shellfish populations at his farm have been suffering because the acidic - the highly - the greater acidity in the sea water prevents the shellfish from actually growing their shells. And could you not put them in tanks and control, you know, fish farm - farming, raise them that way?

EUDELINE: Well, so you know, we are a hatchery, so we have - our larvae are being raised in tanks. So that's one thing we have control over. And as a matter of fact, since in the last four years, we have developed treatment system - buffering systems to improve the viability of calcium carbonate. Of course, when you talk about our farms where we grow the final product, the oysters, it would become very, you know, very, very expensive to artificially grow the food and control all the water qualities. So I would say it's pretty much impossible - well, if you want to be able to afford oysters.

FLATOW: You don't want to pay $10 an oyster.

EUDELINE: Probably way more than this.

FLATOW: Way more than that. You're going to have to do something on a larger scale. Richard Feely, does that mean that ocean acidification is affecting other marine life, other fish that live in the ocean also?

FEELY: Yes indeed, it does. We have seen very dramatic effects at the low level of food chain, the very beginning of the food chain. Marine snails that are free-swimming such as terrapods, for example, are the primary food source for young salmon. And here salmon are particularly important to seafood fishery in Washington State. And so seeing the impacts on those terrapods gives us cause for concern because we really care about whether or not the salmon will have the food they need to survive, and not only the salmon, but the birds and mammals and even our orcas are dependent on the salmon.

So you can see we're concerned how this would have an impact through the food chain...

FLATOW: Can you see it actually happening, having an impact already in the food chain?

FEELY: Yes, we do. (Unintelligible) examples of impacts on terrapods and impacts on the oysters that are in the field. So we do see these in the field - impacts right now. In fact, that's what we're studying in our laboratories.

FLATOW: Let's go to the microphone up here. Yes, ma'am.

ELLEN LETTVIN: Hi. I'm Ellen Lettvin. I'm the vice president for science and education here at Pacific Science Center. And my question is if we were to achieve a successful reduction in CO2 production, how long would it take for that benefit to be realized by the oceans? How long will the increased acidity from the current CO2 levels persist?

FEELY: That's a very good question and fortunately we have a lot of good models. It's interesting that the acidification of the oceans is really well understood because it's very simple chemistry and the models are very, very accurate.

So we begin to reduce CO2 emissions. We would begin to see an impact on the ocean ecosystem, particularly in the surface waters, very, very quickly. We would see a drawdown in the CO2 levels. There would be a little bit of a (unintelligible) effect in the very beginning because the oceans would release some of that CO2 back in the atmosphere. But very quickly we would begin to see a drawdown. The problem is that the way that drawdown would take place would be over hundreds of years. It would be - if we stopped right now we would see the drawdown take place over about next 500 years.

FLATOW: Five hundred years?

FEELY: Five hundred years.

FLATOW: We're stuck with what we have for at least - and it's going to get worse.

FEELY: Well, what we're saying is that the actual drawdown is slow and it will take us 500 years to get back to the pre-industrial...

FLATOW: That's if we stopped right now.

FEELY: If we start right now. If we don't, if we continue on to the end of the century, what the impact would be, we'd have the drawdown taking place over tens of thousands of years.

A very major difference. And this is because a long - the large uptake of carbon dioxide in the oceans. About 95 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere will eventually end up in the oceans.

FLATOW: Wow. Let's go up to the microphone here. Yes?

KAYA DAGGETT: I'm Kaya Daggett, and are there any animals that aren't affected by the pH level changing?

FEELY: That's a wonderful question, and I want to put this in proper context. We've only been studying a very small number of the organisms that live in the oceans. And the studies to date suggest that about 50 percent of the organisms that we have studied have a negative impact because of the increasing CO2 and lowering of the pH. About 25 percent seem to have no impact whatsoever so far, and about 25 percent of the organisms in the ocean seem to do very well in high CO2 oceans. So you can see we would have a major shift in the ecosystems. And we as humans are particularly dependent on that because we eat seafood for food and need that for food security. So how that ecosystem shifts and how that impacts the food we like to eat is particularly important to us.

FLATOW: Do we have a question up here? Yes.

GRETCHEN HUNT ANDREWS: Yes, Gretchen Hunt Andrews. I'm on the board here, and I'm passionate about this issue being a scuba diver. So I know we're in Seattle, but if we think broader and think about coral reefs and think about the world as a whole and what this issue with pH is going to be doing and is doing to the coral reefs, I'd love to hear your response and kind of pulling in, you know, the broader piece, if you will.

And also the challenge to all of us, I guess, in this room is, what do we do to try to get people to get this and really get passionate about it so that it doesn't just get swept under the rug and forgotten, and oh, it's just CO2 and this acidification really gets more prominent?

FEELY: Those are two wonderful questions, and I'll try to answer both of them. What we have found so far is that corals, which produce a calcium carbonate skeleton, are amongst the most sensitive species on Earth to the ocean acidification. There was one study that was done just a couple of years ago in Papua New Guinea, where there was a naturally released - natural release of pure CO2 from a volcanic system just underneath the seabed into a very small area of a coral bed about a size of a football field.

And what they found is, when they started out looking from the outside in, they found 45 different species of corals, one of the most prolific coral reef systems of the world. When they got to the vent system, only two species had survived. And these are pH conditions in those waters that we might expect to see by the end of the century. So the biodiversity of the coral reef ecosystem will be dramatically changed.

And I think the important thing to do is to realize that only about 10 percent of the population knows about ocean acidification. And in anything that we do, it really is a grassroots effort. People make the difference. And by getting the message out through the Pacific Science Center, through our aquariums, through our universities and get the message about how important an issue is for seafood security, for the ecosystems themselves - you know, about half the air we breathe, half the oxygen we breathe, comes from the oceans.

And the food security is a major issue because much - about 20 percent of the protein that mankind depends on comes from the food from the sea. We need to get that message out and get that very, very clear. And I think some of the iconic organisms, you are asking about the fish, the Nemo, probably the most iconic organisms we can think.

FLATOW: Saving Nemo.

FEELY: Saving Nemo. Nemo is a very interesting fish that have been well-studied in terms of acidification.

FLATOW: A clown fish.

FEELY: The clown fish. And at a high CO2 level, instead of avoiding being eaten, they swim towards their predators. This is just one of the many impacts we are seeing in - amongst fish and other organisms. And so we have to look at behavioral changes. We have to look at the changes of the community. We really are just getting started with the interesting research that's taking place throughout the world.

FLATOW: Do you think the audience, the general public is just giving - getting overwhelmed with things that are happening because of climate change? Now it's the acidification of the oceans. It was - the oceans were rising before. The weather has changed. The patterns are changing. Are they just shutting out, or is this something you think, well, maybe when the price of their seafood goes up, it will sink in? What do you think, Benoit?

EUDELINE: Well, you know, (unintelligible) I think the shellfish industry, while looking at it on a more, you know, local scale, and like yesterday, for example, we had two hatcheries and, you know, so people coming and see what we do at the hatchery. But more importantly, we were, you know, I had plenty of talk about ocean acidification, and they could just see our larvae, I mean we have electron microscopy of impacted larvae. You know, we don't anymore because we have treatment system. But we used to have geoduck seed with holes in the shells. So, I mean...


EUDELINE: ...having which - not only Taylor Shellfish but the industry as a whole has a lot of outreach program, and you know, we have a lot of education in school. We have, I think, at least two full-time person going to schools and educate kids about water chemistry...


EUDELINE: ...and water pollution and ocean acidification. And again, having kind of this local outreach, I think, really helps. Of course, you know, we need a much broader scale, but people, when they come to the hatchery and just see it, you know, it's one thing to hear about it...

FLATOW: Right.

EUDELINE: ...but when you come and see that we add sodium carbonate to all our incoming water, it's - I think it brings a message home, basically.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to the question up here. Yes.

THERESA BRITSCHGI: Hi. I'm Theresa Britschgi, and I'm from Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. In addition to doing infectious disease research, we contribute a great deal of time, our scientists, in working with the community and being with teachers and using scientific content and practices to help our teachers convey these messages into students. And often our teachers want to talk to us about the overlap between climate change and global infectious diseases such as malaria, insect-borne diseases. Do you have any comments that we could contribute back to our learning communities on this topic?

FEELY: Yeah. I think that - as you might suspect that there is a very strong connectivity between climate change and ocean acidification. The very cause of climate change is the CO2 that's released in the atmosphere and the continued use of fossil fuel for energy and the dependence on foreign oil. This all contributes to climate change.

And now if we see the connection between the impacts of climate change on land and affecting us in terms of the storms and in terms of sea level changes and flooding, now we connect that up with the impacts on our ocean ecosystems and how - they may be changing in the future. I think there's a very strong connection that we should make that link to, and really get the point across that what humankinds are doing and the choices we need to make over next century have a huge impact on our planet.

I like to say that the decisions we make over the next 10 or 20 years would have an impact on our oceans for the next hundreds of thousands to millions of years.


FEELY: We really need to make a careful decision here.

FLATOW: Right. We can't stop on our more dramatic melt than that. Now, I want to thank both of you for joining us today. Richard Feely, senior scientist at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory here in Seattle. And Benoit Eudeline is the hatchery production and research director at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Quilcene, Washington. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

FEELY: Thank you.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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