NOAA research finds acid dissolving snail shells

The early determinations are in from a research project by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) studying whether ocean acidification is affecting sea life in the Pacific Ocean, and already there are signs of trouble.

Scientists have determined that a high acid content in the ocean is dissolving the shells of pteropods, or tiny free-swimming snails. According to a new article from NOAA documenting the research, the percentage of the snails with acid dissolving their shells has doubled in the areas close to shore since the pre-industrial era.

"We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades," said William Peterson, an oceanographer at NOAA's Northwest fisheries science center and one of the article's co-authors.

The term “ocean acidification,” according to NOAA, refers to carbon dioxide released into the air by human industry being absorbed by the ocean and becoming carbolic acid. NOAA said the number of snails with dissolving shells is likely to triple by 2050, at the rate the corrosive properties in the ocean are rising.

NOAA plans to study other marine species, but already the implications of the initial results are significant. The snails are a food source for pink salmon, mackerel and herring, so anything that affects the snails could affect those stocks.

"Our findings are the first evidence that a large fraction of the West Coast pteropod population is being affected by ocean acidification," said Nina Bednarsek of NOAA's Pacific marine environmental laboratory in Seattle, the lead author of the article. "Dissolving coastal pteropod shells point to the need to study how acidification may be affecting the larger marine ecosystem. These nearshore waters provide essential habitat to a great diversity of marine species, including many economically important fish that support coastal economies and provide us with food.”

Researchers said studying other species may reveal other dangers to stocks that the seafood industry depends upon, such as oysters.

"We do know that organisms like oyster larvae and pteropods are affected by water enriched with CO2,” said Richard Feely, senior scientist from NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab and co-author of the research article. “The impacts on other species, such as other shellfish and larval or juvenile fish that have economic significance, are not yet fully understood."

The research drew upon a West coast survey by the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program in August 2011, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and Oregon State University.


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