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MEOPAR leading national effort to untangle ocean acidification’s risks

MEOPARís Associate Scientific Director, Ronald Pelot, opens a panel discussion at the MEOPAR Ocean Acidification Expert Forum featuring Ken Denman (University of Victoria; Chair of the MEOPAR Ocean Acidification Coordinating Committee) and Janet Newton (Executive Director, Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems; MEOPAR International Scientific Advisory Committee Member)

As the world deliberates on climate change at the United Nations conference in Paris later this month, the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR) looks to keep ocean acidification, “the other CO2 problem,” squarely in its focus.

Often overlooked by the press and public, ocean acidification has been a growing concern among researchers and fishing industry stakeholders for the past decade. Amid discoveries linking acidification to ecosystem health and die-offs in economically important species, MEOPAR has stepped forward with new, far-reaching ocean acidification projects and a nationwide plan for moving forward.

“Ocean acidification is a natural fit for our strategic plan,” explains Douglas Wallace, Scientific Director of MEOPAR, “and as a network that brings groups across the country together, from industry, academia, and government, we’re well situated to initiate Canada’s first national ocean acidification research program.”

Ocean acidification is a result of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in our atmosphere. Over a quarter of this excess CO2 dissolves in our oceans, making them more acidic and causing problems for shell-forming sea life, from Pacific oysters, to Atlantic lobsters, to the tiny plankton that sustain the ocean food web. The shells of many organisms are made of calcium carbonate, and increasingly acidic seawater can break down this armour.

Acidification also lowers the availability of carbonate ions – key building blocks used to form the shells and skeletons of a staggering variety of sea life. “When waters are more acidic, you have fewer of those building blocks,” explains researcher Karen Kohfeld (Simon Fraser University), one of the projects’ coordinators. “Their concentration can affect how juveniles survive, and whether they’re healthy.”

While acidification is a global issue, its effects play out locally, in specific ecosystems, coastal communities, and economies. For example, Oregon and Washington State oyster hatcheries, core drivers of the West Coast’s $111 million shellfish economy, have seen abrupt die-offs in young oysters over the past decade, and found fewer, smaller, and less healthy adults. Working with scientists to monitor the chemistry near their farms, they found problems coincided with upwelling of deeper, more acidic waters at times critical for oyster development.

As farming shellfish becomes more difficult, needing more modifications to adapt to more acidic conditions, these economies become harder to sustain. The risks are no different for Canada’s coastal communities. “Obviously water and dissolved CO2 don’t respect the border,” notes Janet Newton, Co-Director of the Washington Ocean Acidification Center and the Northwest’s Regional Director of the US Integrated Ocean Observing System, and a member of MEOPAR’s International Science Advisory Committee. “The marine environment is something we need to collectively understand.”

Bordering three oceans and home to the world’s longest coastline, Canada’s sheer scale complicates efforts to monitor changes in our waters. “Ocean acidification issues are different in different regions, and there were several individual research efforts going on, but they weren’t linked,” says Dr. Wallace. “It takes a network to encourage and support groups to coordinate their activities so that research is more impactful.”

Gauging how economically and culturally important species will respond to changing acidity is an even bigger complication, and a concern for over 81,000 Canadians who make livings catching, processing, or farming fish and shellfish. Lobster fishermen recently voiced concerns for their industry at a full-day ocean acidification workshop at the 2015 Fishermen’s Forum in Antigonish, NS, sponsored by MEOPAR and international partners from the United States. Fin fish harvesters and aquaculturists are also looking to researchers to understand how species like Atlantic salmon might respond to stresses from more acidic waters.

In the face of this expansive, complex problem, MEOPAR is a focusing force. The network’s Ocean Acidification Coordinating Committee seeks to identify research gaps and bring academics, government agencies, and industry together to address them strategically. Through key collaborations with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and by coordinating equipment deployment and research teams across the country, MEOPAR helps ensure these efforts are having the greatest impact possible.
Events like the 2015 Expert Forum on Ocean Acidification in Victoria have been critical in guiding this work, and have impressed on the international stage. “Not only did MEOPAR have the right people in the room – meaning an assortment of folks from industry, government, and First Nations, not just scientists – but they had them leading talks and participating in breakouts so the audiences could get to know each other and inform each other,” says Dr. Newton. “That’s a design element of MEOPAR that’s spot on, and an important part of their success.”

Information exchange has helped to mitigate ocean acidification’s effects on Pacific oyster hatcheries, and MEOPAR’s investigators are striving toward similarly practical applications with their work. From Simon Fraser University in BC, Dr. Kohfeld is coordinating a team of researchers and end-users like local fisheries and communities, seeking to understand chemical changes and their socioeconomic risks in the “blender of the coastal ocean.” On the Atlantic Coast at Dalhousie University, Helmuth Thomas wants to find out whether acidification will affect certain areas or species more than others, and what this means for fisheries management. By increasing monitoring efforts and comparing careful observations to years of data, Dr. Thomas hopes to tease apart long-term trends from short-term ocean chemistry changes.

Dalhousie’s Katja Fennel and her colleagues are combining field observations with powerful climate-ocean models to predict how ocean chemistry and ecosystems will change decades into the future. Dr. Fennel explains, “We want to get a sense for what’s in store for the aquaculture operators and fisheries in our region.”

MEOPAR’s emphasis on mobilizing knowledge from observations and forecasts is one of its biggest strengths, according to Dr. Newton. “Collecting the data is important, first off,” she explains. “But converting it into products like maps and tools that are useful to the public, to decision makers, industry, First Nations, that’s where MEOPAR has made a huge difference in their other efforts. Doing the same for ocean acidification will be critical.”