How Carbon Dioxide is Affecting Marine Life and Our Oceans


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A three-week-old lobster captured live at the University of Maine, where research is taking place to understand the effects of ocean acidification. Photo by Jessica Waller, University of Maine
A three-week-old lobster captured live at the University of Maine, where research is taking place to understand the effects of ocean acidification. Photo by Jessica Waller, University of Maine

Guest blog post by Jenn Bennett-Mintz, NOAA Ocean Acidification Program

Carbon dioxide isn’t just causing shifts in our earth’s climate. About one fourth of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the air from the burning of fossil fuels to power our homes and cars ultimately ends up in the ocean, causing a change called ocean acidification. U.S. West Coast shellfish growers have already felt the impacts, and those in other regions recognize that change is in motion and want to understand potential impacts and how best to adapt.

Seawater rich in CO2 is deplete of a key building block shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels need to grow and maintain shells. These shellfish are particularly vulnerable when they are very young and just forming their shells. This higher-CO2, more-acidic water can lead to increased mortality among these young shellfish. NOAA and partners are working with shellfish growers around our nation to provide the tools that are needed to rise to this challenge.

From Alaska to California, shellfish hatcheries are monitoring or putting “eyes in the water”  that allow them to see when higher CO2 waters are upwelled near the coast. By monitoring incoming waters, and not allowing CO2-rich waters in, owners are no longer seeing a loss in the young oysters, or seed, that are distributed across the U.S. for others oyster farmer to mature to large adults in coastal waters.

Because shellfish can’t grow to maturity in the controlled comfort of a hatchery, researchers are also looking into how ecologically- and economically-important species are dealing with acidification in their natural environments. Scientists are working to determine if mussels from certain areas of the East Coast are better able to cope with varying acidification conditions. With this information, shellfish growers can determine where to collect mussels to spawn for seed, and improve stocks of mussels for aquaculture in the long run.

Oysters and clams represent the most important marine resource in several Northeast states. Researchers are looking into what characteristics are linked to resilience in the face of change in an aim to provide the aquaculture industry with tools to select resilient shellfish moving forward. Another important industry in New England is the American lobster, which is valued at close to $500 million for annual landings alone. Scientists are researching how young lobster behave and respond in different temperature and acidification conditions to provide information that will help policymakers and lobster fishers manage the fishery’s future.

“Acidification, nutrient pollution and low oxygen may fundamentally change these coastal ecosystems. With these and other threats to our coasts, it is imperative that we build better tools for predicting these changes,” said Dr. Libby Jewett, director of the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program.

Acidification forecasts are now being developed that will help natural resource managers and those in the fishing and aquaculture industry to identify which areas are most vulnerable to our changing ocean. Just as weather predictions inform decisions about what attire is needed to provide comfort and safety each day, this information will allow users to make decisions to support the health of the marine ecosystems and fisheries which we depend on.

NOAA and partners are transferring information and tools to the fishing, management and business sectors that will be affected by and need to adapt to ocean acidification. With a growing adaptation toolbox, those seeing and preparing for the effects of ocean acidification firsthand will be better equipped to face this challenge using information and innovation.

This works is supported through NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program, in partnership with NCCOS Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, Integrated Ocean Observing System, and Sea Grant. For more information, visit

This blog is a part of a monthly series highlighting the contributions of the Commerce Department’s agencies to the Open for Business Agenda. This month’s focus is Environment.

Last updated: 2016-12-16 14:19

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