Alan Barton uses science to solve a mystery
interview by Gina Williams
In 2007 and 2008, baby oysters began dying at Pacific Northwest shellfish hatcheries that rely heavily on aquacultured seed stock. The cause remained a mystery, until one morning when Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery production manager Alan Barton walked in and everything was dead.
Barton realized the problem might be from the water in Tillamook’s Netarts Bay where Whiskey Creek, Oregon’s only shellfish hatchery and the second largest shellfish hatchery on the West Coast, is located. It turned out the mass die-off coincided with a large upwelling event along the Oregon Coast that brought corrosive seawater with a low pH into Netarts Bay. Barton turned to his former colleagues at Oregon State University’s oyster-breeding program for help. Fortunately, Burk Hales, an OSU professor of ocean ecology and biogeochemistry, confirmed acidification was the culprit and developed a way to measure the chemistry of the Netarts Bay water. The hatchery also began working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2010, and today the hatchery is back to nearly full production. Barton and researchers caution the current fix might not work forever.
What has near disaster at Whiskey Creek taught us about ocean acidification and climate change?
Burning fossil fuels has increased the concentration of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere by about 30 percent, which has increased the acidity (decreased pH) of the ocean by about 30 percent. For young shellfish at their most vulnerable state, especially in their first two weeks of life, a low pH environment causes shell deformation and
Research shows that unless we decrease ocean CO2 by moving toward less fossil fuel emissions, extreme events will only get worse over time.
It’s important to note that ocean acidification and global warming are not the same thing. They are different impacts of increasing concentrations of CO2. Acidification is much more straightforward and indisputable.
What are you doing to manage the situation today?
We are now constantly monitoring pH levels in Netarts Bay. We’ve also learned to pump water in the afternoon when acid levels tend to measure lower. Professor Hales created a way to measure the chemistry of the water used for spawning. The effort also resulted in a self-contained monitoring system that continuously collects research-quality water chemistry data, but can be operated in-house. We’ve also learned how to buffer our water with sodium carbonate to keep the shellfish seed healthy.
In 2011, the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) was started with bipartisan support after the shellfish industry and community leaders urged funding for ocean acidification research. Congress subsequently increased investment to NOAA OAP. Research and collaboration with scientists has allowed us to expand monitoring across the West Coast and create a type of ocean acidification early warning system that benefits the entire shellfish and aquaculture industry—an industry worth about $270 million a year of economic activity and employs about 3,200 people in rural communities throughout the region. Researchers are also now developing ocean chemistry forecasts to help hatcheries time activities to maximize output.
In addition, Professor Hales’ research has resulted in deployment of monitoring systems in shellfish facilities and marine laboratories from California to Alaska.
And in February 2018, the Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry Program, a project of the interagency U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program, is hosting the fourth U.S. Ocean Acidification Principal Investigators meeting in conjunction with the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland.