Oyster bags await high tide in an eelgrass bed (Becky Mabardy photo).

By Mark Floyd, OSU News and Research Communications

A survey funded by Oregon Sea Grant (OSG) has found that more than 80 percent of respondents from the west coast shellfish industry are convinced that ocean acidification is having consequences—a figure more than four times higher than the general public's perception, researchers say.

Results of the online survey, conducted by researchers at Oregon State University (OSU), appear in a 24-page report published by OSG called The U.S. West Coast Shellfish Industry's Perception of and Response to Ocean Acidification.

"The shellfish industry recognizes the consequences of ocean acidification for people today—and for future generations—to a far greater extent than the U.S. public," said Rebecca Mabardy, a former OSU graduate student and lead author of the report. "The good news is that more than half of the respondents expressed optimism—at least, guarded optimism—for the industry's ability to adapt to acidification."

Ocean acidification makes it harder for coral, phytoplankton, shellfish, and other marine organisms to build their shells and skeletal structures. Shellfish larvae are especially sensitive to acidified waters during critical, early life-stage development.

"Many have seen the negative effects of acidified water on the survival of their juvenile oysters—and those who have experienced a direct impact obviously have a higher degree of concern about the issue," said OSU marine ecologist George Waldbusser, lead investigator on the study. "Others are anticipating the effects of acidification and want to know just what will happen, and how long the impacts may last."

"Because of some of the success we've had in helping some hatcheries adapt to changing conditions, there is a degree of optimism that the industry can adapt," added Waldbusser, who was Mabardy's mentor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) at OSU.

In the 44-question survey, shellfish industry leaders were asked who should take the lead in responding to the challenges of acidification. Their strong preference was the shellfish industry itself, followed by academic researchers. A majority said that any governmental regulations should be led by federal agencies, followed by the state and then local government.

"As a whole, the industry felt that they should be working closely with the academic community on acidification issues," Waldbusser said. "In the spirit of full disclosure, there were some people who reported a distrust of academics—though without any specifics—so we clearly have some work to do to establish credibility with that subset of the industry."

Among the other findings from the 86 participants in Oregon, Washington, and California who answered the questionnaires:

  • About half reported having already experienced some impact from acidification.
  • Of those who said they have been affected by ocean acidification, 97 percent reported financial damage, while 68 percent cited emotional stress.
  • The level of concern reported by industry was: 36 percent, extremely concerned; 39 percent, very concerned; 20 percent, somewhat concerned; 4 percent, not too concerned; and 1 percent, not at all concerned.
  • Most respondents felt that ocean acidification was happening globally (85 percent), along the U.S. west coast (86 percent), and in their local estuary (84 percent).

"One thing that came out of this survey is that we learned that not only is the shellfish industry experiencing and acknowledging ocean acidification," Mabardy said, "they are committed to learning about the issue and its implications for their business. They want to share their insights as they are forced into action.

"The next step is to continue shifting conversations about ocean acidification from acknowledgment of the problem toward solution-oriented strategies," she added.

OSG has supported the work of Waldbusser and others studying ocean acidification, investing nearly $1.4 million in NOAA research dollars in seven projects since 2010.

Since graduating from OSU, Mabardy has been working as the outreach and project coordinator for the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, based in Olympia, Washington. Her report can be found online in the OSG publications and videos catalog.

Co-authors of The U.S. West Coast Shellfish Industry's Perception of and Response to Ocean Acidification were Flaxen D. L. Conway, Oregon Sea Grant Extension; Christine S. Olsen, CEOAS; and George G. Waldbusser, CEOAS.

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