Increasing ocean acidity threatens Mass. shellfish industry

Oysters, scallops, and clams are some of the popular local delicacies. They're also big business up and down the Atlantic coastline. But these species of shellfish are facing a potential threat that can't even be seen: It's a phenomenon known as ocean acidification.

Increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is one of the causes, said Matt Charette, of the

. The ocean absorbs the carbon dioxide, changing the chemistry of seawater.%



By one estimate, ocean acidity has increased 30 percent from the colonial era. This level is dangerous for shellfish that make up the bulk of the local aquaculture industry.

"Certain organisms like oysters and clams that rely on calcium for their shells are unable to thrive in an environment that is too acidic," said Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at WHOI. "They're unable to build their shells and maintain their shells."

This trend concerns Skip Bennett, owner of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury. His farms now employ dozens of workers and ship product to 41 states. "I think there are 25 farms out in Duxbury Bay... the oyster industry in Massachusetts is about a $30 million industry."

"Right now, in the open ocean, away from the coastline, the threat is more in the future," said Charette. Massachusetts' growing areas are particularly vulnerable, he said, "In the coastal waters it is a present-day threat . . . because nutrients are running off our land surface from fertilizer and wastewater.”

The state has now formed a new commission to investigate the impact of ocean acidification and what measures can be taken to protect the growing aquaculture industry.

Kite-Powell thinks this is an important step because acidification, like other climate change effects, is "something that isn’t in your face every day, it’s something that happens gradually over time.”

Bennett is also happy the state is making this issue a priority as his product has gained a national reputation for taste, something that can be influenced by environmental factors. "It’s very much like wine,” said Bennett. "Those nuances, especially the more you eat oysters, the more evident they become.

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