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close-up of marine snail with thin shell Marine snails, a type of zooplankton and a prey species for many fish, show signs that their shells are dissolving from ocean acidification. Photo credit: NOAA
summer flounder, a flatfish, at the bottom A summer flounder, also known as fluke. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

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April 21, 2017
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Finding Impacts of Changing Ocean Chemistry on Fish and Shellfish

Increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and land use changes means more CO2 is being absorbed by seawater, where it undergoes chemical reactions, reducing the pH level and making the ocean more acidic. That impacts fish, shellfish and other animals that need calcium carbonate to build their shells and coral skeletons.

Since the physiological response to ocean acidification (OA) is unknown for most marine species, a broad research effort at NOAA Fisheries in the Northeast has been directed toward phytoplankton, shellfish and fish species.

In 2010, analytical OA laboratories and experimental systems were established at the Milford Laboratory in Milford, Connecticut for phytoplankton and shellfish, and at the J. J. Howard Marine Sciences Laboratory at Sandy Hook, New Jersey for finfish to match expertise resident at each laboratory.

Planktonic species form the basis of the marine food chain, and any effects on them could ripple through the food web. Commercially important shellfish are a priority because of their economic value and because these species are likely to suffer direct effects of reduced calcium carbonate availability. Fish research focuses on early life history stages that are more vulnerable to environmental stresses.

Researchers at the Sandy Hook Laboratory have found that the fertilization rate and survival to hatching of summer flounder decrease with rising ocean acidity. Further, although the size of larval summer flounder was modestly affected by OA, the timing of when a flounder’s eye migrates and the larva metamorphoses into a juvenile and relocates from shelf to estuarine habitats is accelerated by increased ocean acidity.

The OA group at the Milford Laboratory is also conducting studies to determine the impacts of OA on the physiology of marine animals, from plankton and zooplankton - tiny plants and animals at the base of the marine food chain - to oysters, clams, and mussels.

One project, with colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI,) is focused on how OA might affect the growth and survival of larval surfclams, and their ability to develop from free-swimming larvae to bottom dwelling juveniles. Another project, with colleagues from Stony Brook University in New York, is looking at the effects of OA over multiple generations of blue mussels in Long Island Sound.

Stay tuned!

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