Ocean acidification puts Dungeness crab fishery at risk

Study shows how changing ocean chemistry slows life cycle

Dungeness crab
Ocean acidification will slow the reproductive cycle of Dungeness crabs, according to a new study. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Staff Report

Ocean acidification could take a bite out of the economically important Dungeness crab fishery along the Pacific Northwest coast. As the oceans absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere, the increasingly corrosive water is likely slow development and reduce survival of the crab’s larval stages, according to new research by  the NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

Ocean acidification is one of the most serious effects of increasing CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Based on what we know about emissions trends, the average pH of surface waters off the Pacific Northwest Coast is expected to drop to about 7.8, and even more when periodic upwelling carries deep water to the surface. Acidification has already been found to slow coral growth, impair shark feeding, and speed the spread of invasive species, among other impacts.

The study, recently published in the journal Marine Biology, shows that the crab larvae hatched at the same rate regardless of pH, but those that hatched at lower levels showed signs of slowed development. The researchers suggested that the lower pH may reduce the metabolic rate of embryos. That could extend their vulnerable larval period, or could jeopardize the timing of their development in relation to key food sources, the scientists said.

“I have great faith in the resiliency of nature, but I am concerned,” said Jason Miller, lead author of the research, which was part of his dissertation. “Crab larvae in our research were three times more likely to die when exposed to a pH that can already be found in Puget Sound, our own back yard, today.”

Dungeness crab is the highest revenue fishery in Washington and Oregon, and the second most valuable in California, although the fishery was recently closed in some areas because of a harmful algal bloom. The Dungeness crab harvest in 2014 was worth more than $80 million in Washington, $48 million in Oregon and nearly $67 million in California

To reach their findings, the scientists used eggs collected from Puget Sound and hatched them in tanks with varying pH levels that reflected current conditions, as the lower pH occasionally encountered in Puget Sound when deep water wells up near the surface. Larvae also went into tanks with the even lower-pH conditions expected with ocean acidification.

“The question was whether the lower pH we can expect to see in Puget Sound interferes with development of the next generation of Dungeness crab,” said Paul McElhany, a NOAA Fisheries research scientist and senior author of the paper. “Clearly the answer is yes. Now the question is, how does that play out in terms of affecting their life cycle and populations overall?”

Specifically, the study found that larval survival dropped drastically at lower pH levels. At pH 8.0, which is the current level, 58 percent of the crab larvae — called zoeae — survived for 45 days. At pH 7.5, which sometimes occurs in Puget Sound now, survival was 14 percent. At pH 7.1, which is expected to roughly approximate the pH of water upwelling on the West Coast with ocean acidification, zoeae survival remained low at 21 percent.

“Areas of greatest vulnerability will likely be where deep waters, naturally low in pH, meet acidified surface waters,” such as areas of coastal upwelling along the West Coast and in estuary environments such Hood Canal, the new study predicts.

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