Long Island has a rich history of breeding oysters — but if changes aren't made now, some fear its future could be short.
The world's oceans are becoming more acidic, devastating the West Coast's oyster population, dissolving coral reefs in the South Pacific and harming other marine life.
To stave off such an ordeal here in New York, the state has set up an ocean acidification task force to study the impact of the "emerging threat" on the economy, ecology and recreational health of its coastal waters, a crucial issue to Long Island, where 9.7 percent of its GDP stems from the marine economy.
"Any degree of threat to our marine resources is a threat to Long Island of sizable proportions," said task force member David Gugerty, head of Bayville's environmental conservation commission. "So many people depend on jobs in commercial fisheries, our marine recreation and tourism."
In acidification, the waters absorb more carbon dioxide as levels of the gas rise, primarily due to fossil fuels. The gas dissolves, forming carbonic acid, which reduces the waters' pH level. That then cuts down the supply of minerals needed to make shells, skeletons and coral, leading to thinner shells for marine creatures like oysters and brittle coral reefs. The problem also affects crabs, sea urchins and other food vital to populations in parts of the world.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oceans annually absorb about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, and ocean acidity has increased by about 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution more than a century ago.
Concerned about this increase, state lawmakers, including Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), head of the Assembly's environmental conservation committee, helped turn the task force idea into law two years ago.
Led by Basil Seggos, the state environmental conservation commissioner, the group will convene this fall to identify local factors causing acidification, craft measures to monitor the early effects, recommend policies and educate the public.
So far, acidification has not plagued the Aero Cultured Oyster Co. on the Southold Bay, where owner Karen Rivara seeds up to 20 million oysters each year and sells them to other growers, who sell to restaurants.
But Rivara, seeing the impact acidification has had on the West Coast oyster population, wants more research: "If we don't become better stewards . . . that's going to have a profound effect on our food supply."
Oceanographer and Stony Brook University professor Chris Gobler, who has studied acidification for decades, has documented a decrease in the pH levels of the Island's inland and coastal waters. His research shows that more acidic water results in smaller clams. The corrosive waters have also been found to kill baby shellfish, and while adults put in acidic waters appeared to be unaffected, their offspring were not as healthy.
In ocean waters, carbon dioxide from fossil fuels are absorbed, Gobler said, but "intense" acidification in inland waters stems from sewage discharges and fertilizers causing algae to bloom. When the algae decay, they release carbon dioxide.
"When I first started studying ocean acidification, I thought of it as a 22nd-century problem," Gobler said. "What I now recognize is that it's a 2018 problem. The levels of acidification that we experience in New York coastal waters today is more intense than anything any coral reef will experience ever."