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NOAA and Sea Grant fund $800,000 in research to understand effects of ocean changes on iconic Northeast marine life

NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) and the Northeast Sea Grant Programs joined together to prioritize and fund new research on how ocean acidification is affecting marine life including lobsters, clams, oysters, mussels and sand lance that are so important to the Northeast region. Funding includes $800,000 in federal funds from the two programs with an additional $400,000 non-federal match.


NOAA and Sea Grant drew on the work of the Northeast Coastal Acidification Network to set these priorities. The Network is made up of concerned fishermen, scientists, resource managers, and representatives from federal and state agencies who work together to identify critical vulnerabilities in the northeast, including regionally important and economically significant marine resources that are vital to the many livelihoods and the culture of New England.


“The lobster industry in New England is valued at close to $500 million for annual landings alone (Maine Department of Marine Resources) and yet we know very little about how ocean acidification may affect this species,” said Libby Jewett, director of the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program. “Teaming up with the NOAA Sea Grant Program to fund these projects should help move the needle forward in our understanding and, as a result, enable broader resilience in the region.”


Burning fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, a part of which is absorbed by the ocean. This increase in carbon dioxide in the ocean is causing a change in ocean chemistry called ocean acidification. Learning how changes in ocean chemistry affect New England seafood is important to fisherman and all those whose enjoyment and culture is connected to the sea.


“This initiative is an example of how Sea Grant programs are able to engage the expertise of the university research community to answer complex research needs of local, state and regional stakeholders,” said Jonathan Pennock, director of the NOAA National Sea Grant College Program.  “Sea Grant is committed to transitioning research findings back to fishing, management and business sectors that will be affected by and need to adapt to ocean acidification.”


Some of the research will include:

Dianna Padilla, a PhD researcher from Stony Brook University, has been awarded $185,435 to explore whether blue mussels can adapt to changes in ocean chemistry. Blue mussels live across a wide geographic range in a variety of habitats and are a commercially important species, used in aquaculture in New England.

The investigators will examine mussels throughout their lives, across multiple generations, to assess their ability to adapt, and determine if mussels from certain areas of Long Island Sound are better able to cope with varying acidification conditions. This information can then be used to help shellfish growers determine where to collect mussels to spawn for seed, and improve stocks of mussels for aquaculture in the long run.


Scientists at Stony Brook University under the leadership of Bassem Allam, PhD, have received $199,927 to compare how different bivalves respond to acidification. Bivalves such as oysters and clams, represent the most important marine resource in several Northeast states and production of bivalve seed has recently suffered significant losses due to ocean acidification in some of the largest hatcheries in the nation.  Researchers will identify genetic features associated with resilience in an aim to provide the aquaculture industry with tools to select resilient shellfish stocks.


Richard Wahle, PhD, at University of Maine and his collaborators at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and the University of Prince Edward Island have received a grant of $200,000 to study how young lobster respond to ocean warming and acidification across New England. With 90 percent of the landings harvested from the Gulf of Maine, climate change has already brought about major shifts in the distribution and timing of New England’s lobster fishing. Wahle’s team will look at the behavior, physiology and gene expression of larval lobster in different temperature and acidification conditions that mimic those expected in the next century in the Northeast. This information will help policy makers and lobster fishers to manage the fishery’s future.


Hannes Baumann, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Connecticut have received a grant of $198,393 to study the sensitivity of the Northern sand lance to ocean warming, acidification and low oxygen. Unbeknownst to many visitors to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, who marvel at humpback whales, seals, bluefin tuna, and marine birds, most of these animals concentrate in the sanctuary because of sand lance. “Sand lance are a small forage fish that we call the ‘backbone of the sanctuary’ because they are at the base of the food chain,” said Baumann. “Despite their importance to the ecosystem, their sensitivity to climate and ocean change is unknown.”


This joint effort is part of a larger focus of the OAP and a number of the 33 state Sea Grant programs across the country that are investing in ocean and coastal acidification research to help coastal communities better adapt to ocean change.


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