Ocean Acidification Harming Shellfish

Researchers determine why larval oysters and mussels are sensitive to reduced pH.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob Grant is Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

View full profile.


Learn about our editorial policies.

Dec 17, 2014

Mediterranean mussels at the Penn Cove Shellfish Farm in Washington's Puget Sound.IMAGE COURTESY OF PENN COVE SHELLFISH FARMClimate change is bad for commercial oyster and mussel growers. But until recently, researchers weren’t sure exactly how rising CO2 levels and the resultant ocean acidification—reduced pH—harmed the farmed bivalves. This week (December 15), researchers proposed an answer: it’s all about saturation state. In a paper published in Nature Climate Change, scientists from Oregon State University and state agencies reported that the larvae of Pacific oysters and Mediterranean mussels have a hard time forming their calcium carbonate shells as the surrounding seawater’s saturation state falls. Saturation state is a measure of how corrosive the seawater is to the shells that the larvae make as they grow, and as CO2 increases in the atmosphere, saturation state drops. A lower saturation state means more corrosive water.

“Biological oceanographers have speculated...

The researchers exposed shellfish larvae to chemically manipulated seawater in the lab and tracked the effects of falling saturation state on their growth. They found that if water was too acidic, the free-swimming larvae had to expend too much energy on shell growth, which diverted energy from feeding and swimming activities. This was especially damaging because the developing mollusks have a brief, 48-hour window in which they must begin feeding at a rate that ensures their survival. “The hatcheries call it ‘lazy larvae syndrome’ because these tiny oysters just sink in the water and stop swimming,” lead study author George Waldbusser, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and biogeochemist, said in the statement. “These organisms have really sensitive windows to ocean acidification—even more sensitive than we thought.”

Interested in reading more?

The Scientist ARCHIVES

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?