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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Suffering Shellfish: ocean acidification may lead to a decline in the shellfish population

The ocean typically has a pH of 8. If the pH drops below that, ocean species can be negatively affected. (SANDRA STELMACH / THE STATESMAN)

When conversation turns to Long Island’s coastal waters, Stony Brook University professor Christopher Gobler is quite familiar with the area and the organisms that live in it.

A Port Jefferson native who grew up going to Long Island’s beaches and fishing and sailing in Long Island’s coastal waters, Gobler works in Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Although he is based out of the Southampton campus, Gobler divides his time traveling between Southampton and the main campus, teaching a few classes on both.

In addition, he also conducts research on both campuses. Some of his most recent research involves ocean acidification and the effects it has on shellfish.

The ocean typically has a pH of 8.0, which is a slightly basic pH, Gobler said. (On the pH scale, a pH of 7 means neutral, with anything below 7 being acidic, and anything above 7 being basic.)

However, even the slightest decrease in pH can affect oceanic organisms.

“Negative effects can start at and below 7.7 for some species,”  Gobler said in an email.

Shellfish, which refer to clams, scallops, oysters and mussels, can be found on the waters off Long Island. However, it appears they may be suffering.

“Shellfish shells are made of calcium carbonate which is more challenging for them to make when pH is lower,” Gobler said. “We have found that the levels of pH projected for the open ocean for the next century as well as the levels attained in some coastal regions during summer can cause enhanced mortality in the early life stages of shellfish.”

A decrease in the shellfish population can have harmful effects. Clams, scallops, oysters and mussels are considered to be cornerstone species since they are filter feeding bivalves—they feed by opening their shells, pulling water in, filtering out food particles and then pushing the water back out.

By doing this, they are filtering and cleaning the ocean water.

Losing the shellfish population can lead to significant changes in the ecosystem as well as  negative economic effects, Gobler said.

Shellfish will not be the only group affected. Gobler said that other fish species could be harmed by the increased acidification.

“The early life stages of some fish are sensitive to acidification,” Gobler said. In fact, he said, mostly early life stages of shellfish will be affected, rather than more adult shellfish.

The burning of fossil fuels are expediting the acidification process, Gobler said.

To stop the acidification, the burning of fossil fuels must be diminished. This is also a global issue, he said.

Gobler said his lab also researches other things, such as harmful algal blooms, which include brown, red and rust tides.

HABs are an overgrowth of algae that may produce toxins that can lead to death and illness in both humans and animals.

Gobler, who got his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Stony Brook, actually got into his research because the Great South Bay clam fishery collapsed due to brown tide.

“I am motivated to understand how the functioning of our coastal ecosystems can be altered by anthropogenic activities or can affect people living in coastal zones,” Gobler said.

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