An Ocean Warming: Ocean Acidification, Lobster, and the Need for More Research

Year after year, temperatures in the Gulf of Maine’s waters have risen at unprecedented rates, a result of the same increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide derived from human activity) responsible for climate change.

This has caused a slew of problems for the marine life in the area – and it also means serious trouble for the ocean’s biogeochemical composition. The ocean has always served as Earth’s largest “carbon sink,” meaning that naturally occurring and industrially produced carbon dioxide is dissolved into seawater and, through a chemical synthesis process, forms carbonic acid.

Carbonic acid breaks down into ions that increase the ocean’s acidity. Over time, marine species have evolved alongside this process in a steady transformation leading to a balanced pH for the ocean.

But, as humans have deepened their addiction to climate-warming fossil fuels, more and more carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere – meaning the ocean is taking on more carbon dioxide than ever before. These drastic increases change the ocean’s pH level, throwing it off balance and making it more acidic.

Learning as we go

The full effects of ocean acidification are not yet entirely known, but we have begun to see its effects on certain species. The group of species most threatened by ocean acidification are some of the most important to New England’s coastal economy: the ‘calcifiers’ – lobsters, scallops, oysters and other fish that use the carbonate and calcium ions dissolved in seawater to build their shells.

As the water becomes more and more acidic, it becomes harder to for these species to make and maintain their shells. And as they devote more energy to constructing their shells, less energy can be given to other essential processes, like eating or reproduction.

An uptick in shell disease threatens the fishery

For the American Lobster, ocean acidification has been shown to have devastating effects on the growth and shell building rates of juveniles, making them significantly more susceptible to threats like predation and disease.

A shell disease that creates unsightly lesions in the lobster’s hard exoskeleton, for example, had previously been thwarted by colder water temperatures. But that disease has now slowly begun to creep its way up the coast and into the Gulf of Maine. Given the increasing vulnerability of lobsters, and juveniles in particular, this shell disease and other threats have the potential to inflict serious harm on the species, the fishery, and New England’s economy as a whole.

A Lesson in Taking Initiative

The threats facing our oceans due to ocean acidification have prompted several states to take the initiative to begin to address the regional impacts of coastal and ocean acidification. This spring, Massachusetts senators and representatives are working on a bill that will create a special commission to examine the existing and potential effects of ocean acidification on both ecologically and economically important species in the waters off of Massachusetts.

This bill, Resolve H. 716, follows a rough framework laid out by states like Washington and Maine who have already approved commissions to confront the threats of ocean acidification.

In a recent roundtable forum, Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating emphasized that thorough research on ocean acidification is critical because without the best scientific knowledge, it is impossible to know how Massachusetts should take action.

Following in Washington’s footsteps is an excellent starting point for this work, however the situation facing Massachusetts and Maine (and New England at large) is unique. In the Gulf of Maine, scientists are witnessing changes in temperature and pH more rapidly and dramatically than almost anywhere else in the world – and its waters face a unique stressor due to the arctic ice melt and the resulting influx of freshwater. On top of the environmental factors, New England is especially vulnerable due to its economic dependence on susceptible species such as lobster.

Next Steps

There’s no question that establishing a devoted task force to study ocean acidification and what it means for the people and species in Massachusetts and New England will be helpful. With the support of strong science and the engaged voices of all stakeholders, addressing New England’s unique ocean acidification challenges is an important step in addressing climate change in our region.

Celebrating New England Lobsters on National Lobster Day

Cashes Ledge Lobster
A lobster at Cashes Ledge. Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that New Englanders love lobster. It’s weaved into our culture and history, and it’s unimaginable to think of New England without this famed summer seafood.

Few know that lobsters were once so plentiful in New England that Native Americans used them as fertilizer for their fields, and as bait for fishing. And before trapping was common, “catching” a lobster meant picking one up along the shoreline!

During World War II, lobster was viewed as a delicacy, so it wasn’t rationed like other food sources. Lobster meat filled a demand for protein-rich sources, and continued to increase in popularity in post-war years, which encouraged more people to join the industry.

Popular ever since, now when most people are asked what comes to mind when they think of New England, seafood – especially lobster – is typically at the top of the list.

An industry under threat

We love our New England lobster, but there’s evidence suggesting they’re in danger of moving away from their longtime home. That’s because lobster is under threat from climate change, the effects of which can already be seen on this particular species.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of ocean areas. Until last winter’s uncharacteristically cold temperatures, the prior few years saw an increase in catchable lobster – as the warmer temperatures cause them to molt early, and they move toward inshore waters after molting. However, continued warming will ultimately encourage the lobsters to move north to find colder waters, where they spend the majority of their time.

This is already happening in southern New England, where the industry is already suffering, seeing lobsters migrating northward.

And we’re still learning about the potential for damage caused by ocean acidification, as well as how lobsters may be affected by an increase in colder than usual New England winters.

As we celebrate one of New England’s iconic species on National Lobster Day, let’s remember that slowing down climate change is an important priority for ensuring that future generations can enjoy not Canadian or Icelandic lobster, but New England lobster. Click here to support Conservation Law Foundation’s efforts on fighting climate change.

A Warning From The Distant Past About Current Ocean Acidification

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have made a disturbing discovery about the biggest mass extinction in Earth’s history and the current reality of ocean acidification.

The Great Dying, or the P-T extinction, marked the transition from the Permian to the Triassic period 252 million years ago. The largest of five mass extinctions, the Great Dying killed off 93-97% of all marine species. Both marine and terrestrial species were already under considerable stress during the Permian period due to continual super-volcano eruptions causing high global temperatures and low oxygen levels.

Recent chemical analysis of ancient rocks from the United Arab Emirates desert, however, also shows that the oceans suddenly became more acidic during this time period. Scientists have concluded that ocean acidification, also the result of continual super-volcano eruptions, was the final nail for the majority of marine species in the Permian period.

Most worrisome is that researchers say the rate of carbon dioxide release from the volcanoes is comparable to the current level of human produced carbon dioxide emissions.  Of course, the Great Dying occurred on a much larger timescale (one that is even difficult to imagine), but we should take this new information as a serious warning.

The impacts of ocean acidification can already be seen throughout New England ocean ecosystems. For example, in more acidic ocean waters, shellfish such as mussels and oysters cannot form their shells, making them more vulnerable to predation and other environmental stressors.

Aware of ocean acidification’s increasing threat to our marine life and the coastal communities and economies that depend on it, New England state legislatures are hoping to form a multistate pact to fight ocean acidification along the east coast. Maine’s ocean acidification panel has already produced its final report and was shocked by how little we actually know about ocean acidification and its impacts. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire legislatures are working on bills to follow suit.

According to Hauke Kite-Powell, a Woods Hole research specialist, state officials can do little about the atmospheric carbon dioxide contributing to ocean acidification, but can start with better regulating nutrient flow into our coastal waters.

Ocean acidification is not an easy problem to fix, nor will it disappear any time soon, but at least we are taking initial steps to address this major threat to our oceans and marine life.

Ocean Art at its Finest – The Smithsonian Brings It

Soul-enriching opportunity alert! Two very beautiful, very different new exhibits are going on display next week at my favorite Hall of Wonders – the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Starting Tuesday, September 17th, twenty of Brian Skerry’s most breathtaking and thought-provoking photographs will be featured in a “Portraits of Planet Ocean” exhibit on the 1st floor of Sant Ocean Hall.

Skerry said this about the upcoming exhibit, “I am deeply honored to have an exhibit of my work at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. This creatively designed show will bring visitors into the sea for an intimate look at marine wildlife while highlighting environmental threats and the value of conservation. The show gives a fresh, new perspective to the photographs and I am excited about continuing to reach new audiences about the magnificence of the sea!”

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian asked people to vote for the Skerry image that best represents a “Vanishing World” theme for the display, and the winners have been chosen. I’m happy to see that some “charismatic microfauna” made the cut, in addition to the very compelling seal, manatee, and whale photographs.

Speaking of charismatic microfauna, both Skerry and fine artist Corneila Kubler Kavanagh will be featured in “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” also in the Sant Ocean Hall.

Kavanagh has brought the tiny sea butterfly into our visible world with her soaring, elegant sculptures. She has been collaborating with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution ocean acidification researcher Gareth Lawson to capture the movement and importance of these imperiled animals, who are showing signs of extreme stress as our seas rapidly change.

Pteropods, planktonic animals including the sea butterflies and their arch-nemesis the sea angels, are some of the most essential prey items in the ocean. As our guest plankton reporter Casey Deiderich said last week, “If the phytoplankton are at the base of the food chain, then the zooplankton are at the first rung.”

Hopefully, this special show can help people understand what is at stake so we can find the political will to dial up our national efforts to combat climate change. Not only that, but if you don’t have a boat and a microscope you may never get to see a pteropod in person, so don’t miss this opportunity to gaze upon their ethereal beauty in these two exhibits.

As if this all wasn’t enough reason to make haste to the Smithsonian, did you know they have two giant squid there? My family had to drag me away when we visited a few years ago. I could have poked around the ocean exhibits for days. And there was only one giant squid then.

We are heading to DC again next month and good luck getting me out of the Ocean Hall this time, because in addition to 100% more giant squid, there is now a high concentration of beautiful ocean art to be lingered over. My kids can head to the Air and Space Museum without me.

Threats to Marine Life from Ocean Acidification

As climate change moves to the forefront of our agenda, we are getting more concerned about what effect the increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere are having on the planet’s biggest carbon sink; the ocean.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is rising to levels unprecedented in modern geological history, and as a result our ocean is experiencing changes to its chemistry that may significantly alter habitats and affect marine organisms. Collectively, these changes are referred to as ocean acidification, or a lowering of global ocean water pH due to the absorption of excess carbon dioxide. Scientists have only begun to investigate this process, but it is likely to have a profound impact on New England waters and the species that coastal communities rely upon.

Ocean acidification is a relatively new term for most of us, as a large percentage of the research on this subject has been conducted within the past decade. Scientists have identified a number of changes that occur when CO₂ is dissolved in water. The primary outcomes include an increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions, lowering pH and ‘acidifying’ ocean waters, and the consumption of carbonate, an important component for shell-building organisms. These changes could place stress on marine-dwellers, particularly the critters that require carbonate, like oysters, mussels, clams, and corals, to build their shells or skeletons.

But the ocean is huge! How do we know that these changes are occurring on a scale large enough to affect global ocean chemistry? Scientists have information about past atmospheric and oceanic conditions from clues in the geological record. They can compare these records to projections about how much carbon is likely to be in our atmosphere- and subsequently our oceans- in 20, 50 or even 100 years. The ocean’s pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 since the Industrial era- that’s a 30% increase in acidity– and is projected to fall another 0.3-0.5 units by 2100. Researchers claim that this drop in pH is unlike anything the ocean has undergone in the last 300 million years!

One recent study has shown that the waters of the Gulf of Maine are particularly susceptible to acidification due to already low pH and carbonate levels relative to other regions along the Atlantic coast. This means that we New Englanders could end up with a front row seat to the impacts of ocean acidification!

What does this mean for ocean-dwelling animals? It’s impossible to know how every species will react to changes in ocean chemistry. Some studies have shown that rapid changes in water chemistry can place heightened stress on shellfish, affecting growth, development rates, and even survival. Another study has shown that acidified waters impair organ development in our already-depleted Atlantic cod. “Adapt or die!” –says Darwin, but these human-made changes may be happening too fast for nature to keep up.

The ocean is so important to us, and it’s difficult to imagine how these changes might affect our daily lives. Many fish and shellfish species are critical to our economy, and are relied upon as integral parts of people’s livelihoods. Seafood lovers can’t deny the importance of the ocean as a food source. Beyond our stomachs, the ocean also appeals to our emotions. CLF’s Keren Bitan recently discussed how learning about sea critters can foster a strong personal connection to the ocean and its ecosystems. And anyone who’s explored the tiny world of a tidal pool, or taken a morning walk on a sandy beach, can appreciate the beauty and complexity of the ocean and its habitats. These connections are often what compel us to realize just how important it is that we continue to protect ocean habitat and do what we can to prevent climate change from taking its toll on the world’s oceans.

We have explored less than 5% of our ocean, and yet we may be changing it in ways we are only beginning to understand. We will continue to work to protect the ocean’s resources, animals and habitats, even as the uncertain effects of climate change become apparent.

Ellie Milano is a current Masters student at Tufts University studying Conservation Medicine, an innovative program that seeks solutions to global environmental and health issues. Her thesis work focuses on public opinion of global climate change, and understanding how extreme weather events affect attitudes toward climate change. She is a recent graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, where she double majored in Biology and Environmental Studies. During college, she spent two summers at Cornell University studying aquatic ecology. She grew up in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and her interests include horseback riding, recreational hiking and rock climbing. 

Flight of the Sea Angels

The ethereal creatures you see above are sea angels, or, more formally, pteropods – a kind of shell-less saltwater snail. They are tiny, graceful, and delicate-looking, and they are voracious eaters of only one thing – sea butterflies, another kind of pteropod that does have a shell (below).


Sea butterflies, photographed by Nancy Copley.


My favorite description of how the innocent looking sea angels get a meal comes from researcher Miriam Goldstein in the endlessly fascinating Deep Sea News: “When (sea angels) see a pteropod, they shoot tentacles out of their face, grab their unfortunate prey, and wrestle it into position to be slowly eaten.” Check out her blog – there’s actually a video of it!

It really doesn’t get any better than that. We had a very lively dinner table discussion in my house after learning this, and talked about all the different things we would do if we could only shoot tentacles out of our faces!

Daydreams aside, these miniature mollusks play a mighty role in our ocean’s ecosystem – they are one of the foundations of our marine food pyramid. Many animals depend on pteropods for a large portion of their diet. Some of our most ecologically and commercially important fish eat pteropods. They’re not the only ones – whales and sea birds eat them, too. And pteropods are in serious trouble.

All pteropods swim, even the ones with shells – the sea butterflies. The shells on sea butterflies are very thin, according to researcher Gareth Lawson of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This is possibly an adaptation to keep them from sinking as fast as an animal with a thicker shell would, but these fragile shells are not standing up well to the rapidly changing conditions in our ocean. 

There has been a lot of news about climate change lately, but not as much about ocean acidification (the increasing acidity of the ocean that results from increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere). That is probably going to change, though, as some startling new discoveries about the effects of “climate change’s evil twin” become more obvious. The plight of the pteropods is one stark example of this.

Sea butterflies are the subject of a worry-inducing new article in Nature Geoscience. These animals must form a specific kind of calcium carbonate to make their shells, and they need to be in water that has just the right chemistry for doing this. As the ocean becomes more acidic due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the water chemistry changes, and there is less of what pteropods need in the water to form shells. These incredibly important food animals are becoming less able to make shells. To make matters worse, pteropods that had already formed shells were observed to be dissolving. And the ocean continues to become more acidic.

If the sea butterflies go away, so go the sea angels. Then, what happens to the rest of the food web? This “Sea Butterfly Effect,” as Dr. Lawson calls it, may ripple through our oceans in dramatic ways that are hard to think about.

News like this can provoke a range of responses in people. Personally, I had a minor breakdown when I read about this study from my unheated Massachusetts house – unheated because it was 60 degrees outside. In late December.

Some people will ignore the growing evidence of these big problems. Some people will be too afraid to think about it (understandable!) or have more immediate worries to deal with. Some people will keep doing the good work they are already doing to try and make things better. We all have a choice about what we do next.

As for me, I’m going to keep learning what I can about the changes that are happening, and I’m going to help figure out what we can do to keep our oceans healthy as they become more acidic, warmer, and saltier. I’ll keep you posted.