Global Ocean Health Program

Tackling ocean acidification

Fishermen, seafood companies, and retailers have a direct stake in protecting their supplies from the consequences of industrial society’s vast, unmanaged waste streams, such as ocean acidification and other harmful changes in seawater composition. SFP’s Global Ocean Health Program helps leaders throughout the seafood supply chain confront these enormous challenges —highlighting efficient strategies for response while avoiding costly and ineffectual ones. We provide:
  • Actionable intelligence on relevant science and policy developments
  • Expert advice on options to reduce risks to production
  • Guidance and support for monitoring changes in seawater chemistry in order to protect supplies.
Billions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen and other acidifying wastes pour into Earth’s air and waterways each year from smokestacks, tailpipes, feedlots, fertilizers, and other human sources. As emissions increase, they drive acidification, oxygen depletion, and loss of productive habitat in seas and estuaries around the world. This gathering crisis has already taken a heavy toll on some fisheries, especially among wild and cultured bivalves. The growth in CO2 emissions alone— if left unchecked—is expected to erode foodwebs and fisheries throughout the world, significantly reducing the ocean’s capacity to produce seafood.
Managing the risk to seafood supplies requires pursuit of two broad strategies, and many fisheries leaders are now seriously engaged in both: 

1. Preventing harm at the source. This amounts to bringing emissions and wastes under management, or strengthening existing management where necessary (e.g., via robust emissions policies, energy-efficient practices, lower-carbon fuels).

2. Reducing harm that cannot be prevented.  This approach focuses on building resilience in seafood production systems, e.g., by monitoring changes in seawater chemistry, developing capacity to understand and protect vulnerable larvae from “bad water,” and protecting important habitats where possible by limiting localized effluents.

(Photo credit: Mark Green)
In waters where acidification is already severe, corrosive conditions can dissolve larval clams and oysters, as well as some plankton species. Shown: common hardshell clam larvae from the US East Coast, exposed to seawater at pH 7.5, a reading often found in parts of many bays where riverborne carbon and nutrients compound with atmospheric emissions to amplify acidification.  At initial exposure (left) the larvae are healthy. By day 2 (center), they are visibly fraying and diminished in size. By day 3 (right), the larvae are dead or soon will be

Energy-related CO2 emissions are growing rapidly, and for most areas of the world’s oceans this is the primary driver of acidification. The world’s smokestacks, tailpipes, and other fuel-burning activities poured 29.7 billion tons of this gas into the atmosphere in 2007, according to the US Energy Department’s Energy Information Agency. More than one fourth of this vast flux mixes into the oceans each year, diffusing into the waters that cover two thirds of the planet.
Protecting the productive capacity of the oceans is a critical challenge for the seafood industry. SFP's ocean acidification program convenes major producers and vessel owners, coordinates a study group that brings in scientists and carbon policy experts to explain the problem and potential solutions, organizes briefings and public forums on ocean acidification to educate policy makers and citizens, helps producers gather reliable data in the water, and identifies opportunities for industry participants to make a difference.