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Lisa Speer

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THE LOCATION: Eastern Estuaries

THE STORY: Protecting East Coast Oysters

Mike Martinsen has earned his living from the sea since he was just 11 years old. Back then, he would grab clams with his toes and sell them to his Long Island neighbors. He's had "heydays," when money was great and "maydays," when he wasn't sure how to feed his family. After diseases killed off local oysters, he bought and sold lobster. When they disappeared, he found work on fishing boats.

Bob Rheault hauling in a catch

Photo: Gail Simons Mike Martinsen hauling in a catch.

After earning a college degree later in life, Martinsen and a colleague started the Montauk Shellfish Company in 2009. The small aquaculture business has expanded every year and chefs can't get enough of their Montauk Pearl oysters. But Martinsen worries about a threat that has already hit West Coast oyster growers: ocean acidification caused by fossil fuel pollution.

Quite simply, the 41-year-old can't afford to have another species crash on him.

"We're all in here. It would be devastating, especially at this stage in life. My kids are almost teenagers, and we need this to happen," he says. "That's why we need the research, so at the very least we can know what's coming and see if we can curb it."

THE CONCERN

In many U.S. East Coast estuaries, global fossil fuel emissions and local pollution from farms, lawns and septic systems are causing the region's waters to acidify more quickly than expected. In the lower Chesapeake Bay, waters are acidifying three times more quickly than the open ocean. Marine creatures are getting a double-dose of carbon dioxide from two different sources, which can cause more damage than either problem alone.

Dead Zone

Pollution from fertilizers and leaky sewage systems cause algae to bloom. The algae decompose and raise acidity.

Vulnerable Species

Lab studies show that many types of valuable shellfish, such as eastern oysters, hard clams, soft shell clams, mussels and bay clams, have fared poorly in CO2-rich waters.

Freshwater Input

Freshwater, which is more acidic than seawater, reduces the availability of carbonate in estuaries.

Acidification Hotspot

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

illustration of shellfish

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

THE NUMBERS

The Long Island Sound shellfish industry at a glance:

  • $36 million per year on average comes from clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops
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