Shellfish on Acid

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter, “You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?” But answer came there none — And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

— Lewis Carroll
The Walrus and the Carpenter

Photo: Alex Staroseltsev

By Lee Anna Sherman

Whether or not you’re a fan of gulping down raw oysters doused with Tabasco, recent declines in the succulent Northwest shellfish are cause for alarm. That’s because the chemical changes in seawater that are harming oysters could have far-reaching effects on other ocean species as well (see “Tipping Point”).

A few years ago in Tillamook, oyster larvae at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery were mysteriously dying. OSU scientists diagnosed the problem: acidic seawater, which disrupts the formation of calcium carbonate, the hardening compound in shells and corals. Researchers helped the growers make adjustments in their operation to reduce the influx of acidic water.

Now, with support from the National Science Foundation, oceanographers George Waldbusser, Burke Hales and Brian Haley in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and Chris Langdon of the Mulluscan Broodstock Program at Hatfield Marine Science Center are running experiments to find the threshold at which oysters, clams and mussels are harmed by acidification.

“Scientists know very little, to date, about specific modes of action triggered by acidification,” Waldbusser says.


Researchers in the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, PISCO, are conducting a second NSF-funded project with sea urchins and mussels from California to Oregon. See Tipping Point.

For a  2008 story on ocean acidification along the West Coast, see Acid Ocean.

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