Several years ago, the Pacific Northwest oyster industry nearly collapsed from low production. New science suggests that Long Island Sound could suffer similar hardship.
The cause of this collapse is a big one: a change in ocean chemistry called ocean acidification. This gradual increase in the acidity of ocean waters is caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels and appears to be especially harmful for shell-building organisms such as clams, oysters and scallops.
Unfortunately, a new research paper examining the vulnerability of U.S. coastal communities to ocean acidification, recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change, does not offer good news for Long Island Sound. Though experts have been concerned about the health of the Sound for decades, awareness of the impacts of acidification is relatively new and has not been addressed with much urgency.
But the research finds that the shellfish industry here, which brought in an average of $24 million annually over the last 10 years and comprises more than half the fishing revenue in the state, is at higher risk than was previously understood. That, in turn, makes the region socioeconomically vulnerable, because communities here depend on jobs and revenue from the shellfish industry.
The study -- which I contributed to with scientists from University of California Davis, the Ocean Conservancy and Duke University -- integrated physical, economic and social data, bringing together global models of ocean acidification with research on the nation's coastal communities and the local factors that contribute to vulnerability. In Long Island Sound, the strongest of those factors is abundant nitrogen pollution, which is a result of fertilizers and inadequate sewage treatment. This spurs excess algae production that can ultimately raise acidity, worsening acidification's effects. We need a better understanding of such double effects.
But there is some hopeful news. We also found that the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest, despite multiple ongoing risk factors, is no longer as vulnerable to changing ocean chemistry as in the past. That's not because ocean acidification is going away. In fact, it's projected to worsen considerably in coming decades. Instead, coastal waters and the region's shellfish industry are safer because of actions taken by Washington and Oregon, with help from the federal government. These states are providing critical services, such as monitoring systems to warn shellfish hatcheries of corrosive waters so they can turn off their intake valves or begin to "condition" their water with chemical buffers.
The example of the Pacific Northwest shows us that we can take measures to protect our industries. There are actions that can be taken now to reduce Long Island Sound's vulnerability, but solutions must be specific to the Sound's unique combination of risk factors. New York and Connecticut lawmakers should establish a panel to identify research and policy priorities to combat the dual impacts of ocean acidification and nitrogen pollution on the Sound, following the lead of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel.
One thing is clear: Acidification offers one more good reason to double down and reduce the nitrogen pollution of our waters.
We need an integrated effort. The sooner New York and Connecticut address the problems that make Long Island Sound vulnerable to ocean acidification, the sooner communities dependent on healthy waters can become safer and more resilient.
Lisa Suatoni is a senior scientist in the oceans program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.