Humpback whale and Smokestacks by Devra-minicooper93402
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Threats to Marine Life from Ocean Acidification

Categories: Guest Posters

As climate change moves to the forefront of our agenda, we are getting more concerned about what effect the increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere are having on the planet’s biggest carbon sink; the ocean.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is rising to levels unprecedented in modern geological history, and as a result our ocean is experiencing changes to its chemistry that may significantly alter habitats and affect marine organisms. Collectively, these changes are referred to as ocean acidification, or a lowering of global ocean water pH due to the absorption of excess carbon dioxide. Scientists have only begun to investigate this process, but it is likely to have a profound impact on New England waters and the species that coastal communities rely upon.

Ocean acidification is a relatively new term for most of us, as a large percentage of the research on this subject has been conducted within the past decade. Scientists have identified a number of changes that occur when CO₂ is dissolved in water. The primary outcomes include an increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions, lowering pH and ‘acidifying’ ocean waters, and the consumption of carbonate, an important component for shell-building organisms. These changes could place stress on marine-dwellers, particularly the critters that require carbonate, like oysters, mussels, clams, and corals, to build their shells or skeletons.

But the ocean is huge! How do we know that these changes are occurring on a scale large enough to affect global ocean chemistry? Scientists have information about past atmospheric and oceanic conditions from clues in the geological record. They can compare these records to projections about how much carbon is likely to be in our atmosphere- and subsequently our oceans- in 20, 50 or even 100 years. The ocean’s pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 since the Industrial era- that’s a 30% increase in acidity- and is projected to fall another 0.3-0.5 units by 2100. Researchers claim that this drop in pH is unlike anything the ocean has undergone in the last 300 million years!

One recent study has shown that the waters of the Gulf of Maine are particularly susceptible to acidification due to already low pH and carbonate levels relative to other regions along the Atlantic coast. This means that we New Englanders could end up with a front row seat to the impacts of ocean acidification!

What does this mean for ocean-dwelling animals? It’s impossible to know how every species will react to changes in ocean chemistry. Some studies have shown that rapid changes in water chemistry can place heightened stress on shellfish, affecting growth, development rates, and even survival. Another study has shown that acidified waters impair organ development in our already-depleted Atlantic cod. “Adapt or die!” –says Darwin, but these human-made changes may be happening too fast for nature to keep up.

The ocean is so important to us, and it’s difficult to imagine how these changes might affect our daily lives. Many fish and shellfish species are critical to our economy, and are relied upon as integral parts of people’s livelihoods. Seafood lovers can’t deny the importance of the ocean as a food source. Beyond our stomachs, the ocean also appeals to our emotions. CLF’s Keren Bitan recently discussed how learning about sea critters can foster a strong personal connection to the ocean and its ecosystems. And anyone who’s explored the tiny world of a tidal pool, or taken a morning walk on a sandy beach, can appreciate the beauty and complexity of the ocean and its habitats. These connections are often what compel us to realize just how important it is that we continue to protect ocean habitat and do what we can to prevent climate change from taking its toll on the world’s oceans.

We have explored less than 5% of our ocean, and yet we may be changing it in ways we are only beginning to understand. We will continue to work to protect the ocean’s resources, animals and habitats, even as the uncertain effects of climate change become apparent.

Ellie Milano is a current Masters student at Tufts University studying Conservation Medicine, an innovative program that seeks solutions to global environmental and health issues. Her thesis work focuses on public opinion of global climate change, and understanding how extreme weather events affect attitudes toward climate change. She is a recent graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, where she double majored in Biology and Environmental Studies. During college, she spent two summers at Cornell University studying aquatic ecology. She grew up in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and her interests include horseback riding, recreational hiking and rock climbing. 

Horseshoe Crabs
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Announcing Our June Photo Contest Winner!

Categories: Photo Contest

Congratulations to Naomi Blinick, our winning photographer for June’s contest! This dynamic shot of horseshoe crabs was taken in the waters off Woods Hole, MA. We love the way it highlights the sandy bottom and lush seagrass that provide excellent habitat for marine wildlife.

Horseshoe crabs can create habitat, too! Organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges often cling to their shells–barnacles and snails are visible on the crabs in this picture.

Do you have a great photo of New England’s oceans to share?  Enter our photo contest! Each month, Brian Skerry will lead our team of judges to select a winner, who will receive a copy of Brian’s book Ocean Soul.

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO”. Find out more here.

Be sure to check our our New England Ocean Odyssey Facebook page where we’ll be posting honorable mentions from the photo contest over the next few days.

We look forward to seeing your photos!

Harbor Seal
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Categories: Guest Posters

Editor’s note, 8/5/13: Due to concerns raised by our blog post and video
showing a diver interacting with a seal, we have decided to remove the post.
For information about the Marine Mammal Protection Act, visit
http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/laws/mmpa/.

Please check back soon for new photos and blogs from Michel Labrecque.

Green Sea Urchin by Alex Shure
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Independence and Interdependence – Green Sea Urchins

Categories: Events/Calendar

In honor of this coming 4th of July, we bring you this firecracker explosion of green spines and star-like sprinkling of tube feet. It’s a close-up shot of an important New England ocean citizen – the green sea urchin. These spiny bottom dwellers used to be one of the most important fisheries in Maine (there is a huge Japanese market for sea urchin eggs), but it has been a roller coaster trying to manage them. Why? They are part of an ecosystem so interconnected that when the urchin populations change the entire base of the food chain shifts, seemingly for good.

Green sea urchins graze on sea grasses (also called seaweed or green algae). When, in the late 1980’s, the urchins started to be heavily fished, the seaweed they had been eating began to take over areas that had formerly been dominated by a low growing “coralline” algae. This created habitat for Jonah crabs, which began to eat the remaining sea urchins, which never came back.  Now, “the entire coastal ecosystem has flipped and ‘locked’ into a seaweed-dominated alternate stable state that has persisted for nearly 20 years.”

Researchers at the University of Maine have tried reintroducing tens of thousands of urchins to areas off the coast of Cape Elizabeth – but the large crabs who have found shelter in the newly formed sea grass ecosystem ate them all. What used to eat the crabs and keep their numbers in check? Cod did, among other things. But the cod are not doing well, either. 

The green sea urchin fishery was an important one in Maine, contributing millions of dollars to the economy, and was second only to lobster in value. No longer. We have depleted our ocean of species it used to be full of, and entire ecosystems are changing. 

This story of sea urchins and crabs and cod is a great example of why we need to manage for systems, not for species. Removing an animal or plant out of the context of its own ecosystem and then expecting to make good decisions about it doesn’t work for too long – there are so many interdependent and moving parts. And now, with our oceans rapidly changing due to climate change and ocean acidification, it is even more important for managers to consider the entire system, and not just its components. If nature is going to adapt to a warmer, more acidic ocean, we need to give it the time and space to do so.

I really hope the cod come back, and the urchins recover, and we can rebuild our once world class fisheries. But more than that, I hope we can start seeing ourselves as part of this system, and can look at the ocean as more than our personal grocery store. Ultimately, it won’t matter what’s on the shopping list if the shelves are empty.

keren beach
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Learning About Our Shores With Summer Intern Keren Bitan

Categories: Guest Posters

I’ve always enjoyed swimming in the ocean and taking my dog for walks at a local beach. In the colder months gazing out at the vast ocean from the sand calms my mind, while my fearless dog plays in the water. I love to watch the waves dance on the beach, the white foam form and recede, the sun glitter on the surface.

Two years ago, determined to learn more about the New England shore, I spent a summer at Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island. At Shoals, students engage with field work, delving into the science of marine organisms and learning about the rocky coast. Appledore Island is part of the Isles of Shoals, an island chain located off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

I saw my first nudibranch in a tide pool on Appledore. Since nudibranchs can be notoriously hard to find, the hunt for the small invertebrate made finding one even more exciting. I was pleased to learn the serene ocean surface I love houses such fantastic small creatures.

Underneath the waves lies an interconnected and intricate web of species. Beautiful invertebrates like nudibranchs rely on other organisms like algae and sponges to live. While we watch the waves ebb and flow, below the surface millions of organisms are foraging and fighting, creating new life and decomposing old life.

The nudibranch I saw at Shoals is used to the cold New England waters. However, there are around 3000 different species, all with diverse and interesting adaptations and capabilities. Some live in tropical, deeper waters, while others make a home in tide pools on the rocky Maine coast. All nudibranchs are short lived (at most one year), but they live brilliantly.

Brightly colored nudibranchs exhibit warning coloring. The colors show predators the animal is poisonous. Some individuals concentrate poison from the sponges they eat in order to become toxic themselves. In an impressive feat, nudibranchs that feed on hydroids which contain nematocsyts (stinging cells) are able to retain the stinging cells without harming themselves. The nudibranchs can then store the cells and later deploy them against potential predators- a tricky maneuver!

Marine organisms rely on certain foods and temperatures in order to survive- just like you and me. For instance, if a nudibranch acclimated to a cool tide pool at Shoals was transported to the tropical sea, it would likely die. As the climate changes, the environment individual marine animals depend on is changing too. As part of a more than 40 year long monitoring project at Shoals, I (and a team of other interns) spent time identifying algae, dog whelks, periwinkles, and other marine organisms in the intertidal (the area between low and high tide). Comparing the information we collected with information from 40 years ago will help to paint a picture regarding long term changes on the shores of New England.

Learning more about interconnected and fascinating marine ecosystems can inspire us to work to protect our ocean in the face of climate change. Like some marine organisms that rely on each other in order to survive, we also exist in an interdependent relationship with the sea; half of the oxygen we breathe comes from small marine organisms called phytoplankton. Healthy ocean ecosystems benefit both the magnificent creatures that live in the water, and the humans on land that depend on them.

With the knowledge I’ve gained at Shoals I see the rocky coast with new eyes. I notice algal blooms, snails in tide pools, and blue mussel shells in the sand. Learning more about marine ecosystems has only enhanced my affinity for the sea. I was fortunate enough to work with a great team at Shoals in researching our ocean; I hope to partner with many more ocean enthusiasts in working to protect the beaches and shores I love.

Coral Transect

Keren is a rising senior at Cornell University studying Biology and Society, with minors in Marine Biology and Science of Earth Systems. She has loved the ocean since she was old enough to walk along the sea shore. Keren recently spent time researching water quality on the Kona Coast of Hawai’i Island with The Nature Conservancy. She has also researched the Maine intertidal ecosystem as it reacts to climate change at Shoals Marine Laboratory. Keren is a native of Southern Maine, where she enjoys taking her dog for walks and exploring the rocky coast. She is excited to spend the summer interning with the Communications Department at CLF!