Researchers Collaborate to Study Impact of Ocean Acidification on Northeast Fisheries, Develop Management Tools

A multi-institution team led by UConn researchers is using computer modeling and biological research to help northeast scallop fisheries facing the threat of ocean acidification.

woman looking at a map of scallops off the east coast

(Yesenia Carrero /UConn Illustration)

A multidisciplinary, multi-institution effort is bringing together computer modeling, biological, and social science research to inform management policies for Northeast scallop fisheries facing the threat of ocean acidification.

The $1,034,822 project sponsored by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Acidification Program includes researchers from the University of Connecticut, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation (CFRF), and Rutgers University.

Scallops are an economically and culturally significant resource for coastal communities in New England. Worth more than $500 million per year, scallops are the second most valuable fishery in the Northeast. Unfortunately, scallops are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is the process by which the ocean gradually increases in acidity as it absorbs excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a direct result of humans burning fossil fuels. Acidification reduces the amount of available calcium carbonate in the water. Many ocean-dwelling organisms, including scallops, need calcium carbonate to build their shells. The energy an organism has for growth and other physiological processes can also be affected by ocean acidification.

Scientists currently lack a clear understanding of exactly how and what levels of ocean acidification will impact scallops.

Presenting future ocean conditions as a choice and an option we face as a society is important for engaging with coastal communities and the impact of our work — Samantha Siedlecki

Shannon Meseck, a research scientist at the NEFSC based in Milford, will focus on understanding the physiological effects of various levels of ocean acidification on scallops.

As Meseck and her team at NOAA Fisheries collect biological data, it will be combined with climate models and the social sciences to create a more comprehensive picture.

“I’m excited about this collaboration, which will bring together our new biological datasets collected from experiments with larval and juvenile sea scallops and new regional ocean acidification projection models,” Meseck says. “Incorporating new data specific to the effects of ocean acidification on sea scallops will help the industry anticipate those effects and respond.

“The more we can understand the effects of ocean acidification on each life stage, the better,” Meseck says.

Samantha Siedlecki, assistant professor of marine sciences at UConn, will use computer models to investigate how changing ocean conditions could impact Northeast scallop fisheries in the near future. The model incorporates information about carbon emissions, freshwater sources, and temperature patterns.

Due to temperature patterns in the Northeast, this area has not been acidifying as rapidly as other parts of the ocean. However, given current emission trends, the problem of ocean acidification is still an imminent threat.

“Ocean acidification is a huge issue globally,” Siedlecki says. “But in this area, it hasn’t been as prominent an issue historically, and people have become mollified because of it.”

The models will help the researchers, and by extension, fishers, understand how ocean acidification may impact factors such as scallops’ growth rates. If scallops cannot develop normally, it may take them longer to reach a harvestable size.

Currently, certain areas along the Northeast coast are closed for the protection of scallops as they grow to maturity. These models can help fisheries managers determine where these areas may move to match where the young scallops have a healthier environment.

Siedlecki’s models will consider various levels of global carbon emissions, outlining the pathways ocean acidification could take under different measures implemented to curb global warming.

“Presenting future ocean conditions as a choice and an option we face as a society is important for engaging with coastal communities and the impact of our work,” Siedlecki says.

The researchers will work directly with local fishing communities through their collaboration with the CFRF to develop tools that can be used to directly manage these vital resources.

“This project will improve the fishing community’s understanding of the impacts and implications of ocean acidification, and allow us to chart a path forward together,” says David Bethoney, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation.

This project is an industry-science-community collaboration in almost all aspects of the research. The Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation has created several research fleets in partnership with commercial fishermen to collect oceanographic and biological data. Oceanographic data collected from the (CFRF)/WHOI Shelf Oceanographic Research Fleet and CFRF Lobster and Jonah Crab Research Fleets will be used to evaluate the model simulations.

Lisa Colburn, an anthropologist from the NEFSC, will lead the effort to incorporate the concerns of coastal communities into the work. Her research includes understanding the historical social dynamics of the industry and the way it has adapted to changes in the environment and management.

“We will be holding workshops with the fishing industry, and we plan to have detailed discussions,” Colburn says. “We’ll take our approach and results to them and listen to their feedback to incorporate the industry perspective. We want to know how we can make our recommendations as meaningful as possible.

“The questions we hope to answer are: What do scallop fishermen and fishing communities need to know in order to adapt to, and be resilient to, changing ocean conditions? And how can this inform fisheries management?”

The three-year project is already underway. The team will begin their workshops this spring in order to bring community members into the fold as soon as possible.

“It’s a two-way process,” Siedlecki says. “We’re not engaging coastal communities solely to teach them things. We’re also looking to learn from them.”

NOAA Fisheries promotes the stewardship of productive and sustainable fisheries along the US coasts by working with regional organizations.

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