Future Proofing the Shellfish Industry

06/17/2015 01:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

Shellfish farming is hard work, and growers depend on Mother Nature to feed and nurture our crops. Growers work at the mercy of tides, storms, predators and changing water quality. Around the nation thousands of people in rural coastal areas make their living growing oysters, clams and mussels. Thousands more harvest wild shellfish. Shellfish are the financial backbone for many coastal communities, adding to the tax base and providing family-wage jobs. U.S.-produced clams, mussels and oysters play an important role in our national heritage and nutrition.

2015-06-08-1433780844-8317314-taylor_shellfish.jpg Shell-building animals like oysters and sea snails are having trouble building their shells as the ocean's chemistry changes, and this has a ripple effect up the food web and across livelihoods.
Copyright 2013 Barbara Kinney/Ocean Conservancy All Rights Reserved

But shellfish growers face a new and fast-growing challenge: ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide dissolves readily into the ocean, turning the water corrosive to shell-forming animals. It doesn't matter whether the carbon dioxide comes from fossil fuel emissions, deep-water upwelling or fertilizer runoff, it all combines to make it harder for shellfish to form a shell. Tiny shellfish larvae are most vulnerable during the first few days of their lives, and when conditions become too corrosive, the larvae cannot survive.

While West Coast oyster farms have been the hardest hit to date, sustaining millions of dollars in losses a few years ago from massive die-offs, a recent study in Nature Climate Change found that coastal communities in 15 states are at serious risk from ocean acidification. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Florida, North Carolina, California, Louisiana, Maryland and Texas were identified as hot spots.

Some coastal waters are already experiencing conditions that shellfish larvae cannot tolerate, and we still don't know how lobster, shrimp and other organisms that form the base of the marine food chain will be impacted. If these fisheries and farms begin to falter as scientists predict, the impact to rural coastal communities around the world will be devastating.

Given the importance of seafood to our coastal communities, our economies, and as a major source of protein for people around the world, it is increasingly important that we conduct critical scientific research so we can better understand how various organisms will react to acidification in the coming years. We need to develop strategies that will help us mitigate and adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Biological research, selective breeding and technology will be critical for our industry to adapt to the challenges that lie ahead.

The Obama administration has proposed $30 million to fund ocean acidification research in 2016. Thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenues are at stake. We know we can mitigate some of the causes of acidification by reducing excess nutrients in our estuaries. We also know we can treat the water in our hatcheries to help shellfish larvae get past their most vulnerable stage. But we still need to learn a lot more to understand how organisms will respond to ocean acidification, and we need to develop new strategies to adapt to changing conditions.

NOAA has made great progress with just a little funding in recent years. They have placed an "early warning system" for ocean acidification along the West Coast and funding research on responses of commercially harvested shellfish on the West and East Coasts. Boosting funding to $30 million in FY2016, if approved by Congress, would support partnerships among shellfish growers, researchers, and fisheries managers to help us prepare for future challenges from ocean acidification, preserving jobs, income, and a way of life for the next generation in our coastal communities.