Close-up of oyster bed

Oyster Growers Prepare for Changing Ocean Chemistry

As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, ocean acidity changes—inhibiting the growth of oysters. A new tool may be able to help oyster growers understand how they will be affected.

Problematic changes

For Bill Mook, coastal acidification is one thing his oyster hatchery cannot afford to ignore. That’s why he's helped develop a tool to get ahead of the problem.

Left, Bill Mook with handful of tiny oysters. Right, closeup image of oysters.

Bill Mook scoops up a handful of tiny oysters from a bucket in his hatchery. 

Mook Sea Farm depends on seawater pumped directly from the Gulf of Maine into a Quonset hut-style building where tiny oysters are grown in tanks. Mook sells these tiny oysters to other oyster farmers or transfers them to his oyster farm on the Damariscotta River, where they grow large enough to sell to restaurants and markets on the East Coast.

Oysters and other shellfish use carbonate from ocean water as the building blocks to grow their shells. The global ocean has soaked up one third of human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since the start of the Industrial Era, increasing the CO2 and acidity of seawater. Increased seawater acidity reduces available carbonate, making it harder for oyster to grow. Rain washing fertilizer and other nutrients into nearshore waters can also increase ocean acidity.

The "black box"

In 2013, Mook teamed up with fisherman-turned-oceanographer Joe Salisbury of the University of New Hampshire to understand how changing seawater chemistry may hamper the growth and survival of oysters in his hatchery and oyster farm. Salisbury and his team adapted sophisticated technology that Mook calls “the black box,” and installed it in the hatchery.

Bill Mook checks sensors

Bill Mook, owner of Mook Sea Farm on the coast of Maine, checks sensors inside the "black box," which monitors the changing acidity in seawater that he pumps into his oyster hatchery.

Sensors housed inside a heavy black plastic case the size of a breadbox estimate the amount of carbonate in seawater pumped into the hatchery by measuring carbon dioxide and the alkalinity, or the capacity of the water to buffer against increases in acidity. The "black box" was developed with funding from the NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and Integrated Ocean Observing System.

Mook compares ocean acidification to a train barreling down the tracks headed for his business. By measuring the year-to-year changes in carbonate and matching that against how well his oysters do in a particular year, he says he’ll understand how oysters grow under different conditions. These tools help him learn how fast and at what time the train may arrive.

A growth opportunity

“We see a growth opportunity for this equipment,” Salisbury says. He and his team are now using “black boxes” in the waters off Puerto Rico to map where changes in acidity may contribute to coral reef erosion.

Starting in 2017, NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow will be outfitted with black boxes to collect carbonate chemistry data during fisheries surveys along the eastern seaboard. NOAA will use this data to help improve predictions of how ocean acidification may affect valuable resources and the people, like Mook, whose livelihoods depend on them.

Story Credit
Adapted from "New tool helps oyster growers prepare for changing ocean chemistry" by Laura Newcomb. See link at right, under Additional Resources.
Banner Image Credit
Oyster bed close up. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, uploaded by mrjohncummings. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Last modified
17 April 2017 - 12:17pm