Dissolving shells on the West Coast
Evidence now indicates that acidity of West Coast continental shelf waters is dissolving the shells of tiny free-swimming marine snails, called pteropods, the major food source for pink salmon, mackerel and herring. Funded by NOAA, the study estimates the percentage of pteropods in this region with dissolving shells due to ocean acidification has doubled in the nearshore habitat since the pre-industrial era and is on track to triple by 2050 when coastal waters become 70 percent more corrosive than in the pre-industrial era due to human-caused ocean acidification.
Corrosive waters are documented through the summer months on the continental shelf during the upwelling season. This is when winds bring carbon dioxide rich water up from depths of about 400-600 feet onto the surface and the continental shelf.
"Our findings are the first evidence that a large fraction of the West Coast pteropod population is being affected by ocean acidification," said Nina Bednarsek, Ph.D., of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, lead author of the paper. "Dissolving coastal pteropod shells point to the need to study how acidification may be affecting the larger marine ecosystem. These nearshore waters provide essential habitat to a great diversity of marine species, including many economically important fish that support coastal economies and provide us with food."
The term "ocean acidification" describes the process of ocean water becoming corrosive as a result of absorbing nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human sources. This change in ocean chemistry is affecting marine life, particularly organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons or shells, such as corals, oysters, mussels, and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain such as pteropods. The pteropod is a free-swimming snail found in oceans around the world that grows to a size of about one-eighth to one-half inch.
The research team, which also included scientists from NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Oregon State University, found that the highest percentage of sampled pteropods with dissolving shells were along a stretch of the continental shelf from northern Washington to central California, where 53 percent of pteropods sampled using a fine mesh net had severely dissolved shells. The ocean's absorption of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions is also increasing the level of corrosive waters near the ocean's surface where pteropods live.
"We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades," said William Peterson, Ph.D., an oceanographer at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center and one of the paper's co-authors. "This study will help us as we compare these results with future observations to analyze how the chemical and physical processes of ocean acidification are affecting marine organisms."
Read more at: NOAA
Tperopod image via NOAA.