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Acidification of Oceans Threatens to Change Entire Marine Ecosystem

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Ocean acidification due to excessive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is threatening to produce large-scale changes to the marine ecosystem affecting all levels of the food chain, a University of B.C. marine biologist warned Friday.

Chris Harley, associate professor in the department of zoology, warned that ocean acidification also carries serious financial implications by making it more difficult for species such as oysters, clams, and sea urchins to build shells and skeletons from calcium carbonate. Acidic water is expected to result in thinner, slower-growing shells, and reduced abundance. Larvae can be especially vulnerable to acidity.

"The aquaculture industry is deeply concerned," Harley said. "They are trying to find out, basically, how they can avoid going out of business."

While there is potential for, say, commercial oyster growers to reduce acidity for larvae in land-based facilities, the greater marine environment doesn't have that luxury. "For wild populations, you can't just take part of their lifecycle and babysit it," he said.

A total of 10,000 tonnes of oysters, clams, scallops and mussels worth $21.7 million were harvested in B.C. in 2010. The sea urchin fishery was worth another $9 million, based on a harvest of 2,300 tonnes.

Lab studies at the University of B.C. also show that acidic water can impair the ability of salmon to grow and smell properly, which has implications for their ability to find native spawning streams. Research in Australia's coral reefs has found that acidity can erode a fish's ability to sniff out their best habitat and to avoid predators.

Development of small creatures such as pteropods - free-swimming snails that are food for salmon - will also be stunted by acidity.

Harley was speaking in an interview at the conclusion of a week-long meeting on ocean acidification involving some 20 scientists and research students from Canada, the U.S., Scandinavia, Australia, Italy, Great Britain, and Hong Kong.

Harley said that research into ocean acidification is only about a decade old, which is why it is important to bring researchers together from different parts of the world to share findings and better understand the big picture.  

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