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Lisa Suatoni

Lisa Suatoni

Senior Scientist, Oceans Program

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Alexandra Adams

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Sarah Chasis

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Lisa Speer

Director, International Oceans Program

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THE LOCATION: California

THE STORY: Going Under for Urchins

Bruce Steele has been diving for sea urchins off California's coast since before he could legally buy beer. Now 59, he worries about how ocean acidification will affect the sea urchin's life span. Some sea urchins grown in more corrosive water have become deformed, or are less fit to reproduce. Yet recent studies suggest these marine animals – prized by sushi eaters on both sides of the Pacific Ocean – may be heartier than other species.

Bruce Steele

Bruce Steele

Scientists at Stanford University have found that some purple sea urchins living along the coast of California and Oregon are able to rapidly adapt to acidic ocean water. High levels of genetic variation allow the urchins to maintain healthy growth in water with high concentrations of CO2. Finding out more information about how they are able to adapt, and whether other marine species have developed similar capacities, could prove helpful as ocean waters continue to become more acidic.

Still, that gives Steele little comfort.

"I really don't want to be on the pointed end of this arrow in a wild fishery," Steele says. "It's scary. The thing I fish for lives in the wild, and we don't know jack diddly about all those other parts of the ecosystem that urchins depend on."

THE CONCERN

While little is known about marine species' capacity to adapt to ocean acidification, much is known about the phenomenon itself, often referred to as the other CO2 problem. Research shows that coastal currents along the West Coast, referred to as upwelling, are acidifying these waters faster than expected by mathematical models. The California economy is heavily dependent on ocean resources. In addition to scuba diving, several other industries including recreational and commercial fishing and shellfish aquaculture, depend on healthy marine ecosystems.

Upwelling

This phenomenon occurs when natural weather patterns churn up deep, acidic water onto coastlines.

Algae Blooms

Pollution from fertilizers and leaky sewage systems cause algae to bloom. The algae decompose, raising acidity levels.

Acidification Hotspot

Credit: Illustrations of sea life © B. Guild Gillespie / www.chartingnature.com

illustration of abalone

Credit: Illustration © B. Guild Gillespie / www.chartingnature.com

THE NUMBERS

The California coast and fishing industry at a glance:

  • 30+ million people live within 30 miles of the coast, or 80% of the state's population
  • Top 5 is where California's fishing industry ranks among states that produce seafood
  • 472 million pounds of seafood are produced with an economic value estimated at more than $800 million annually
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