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New Ocean Acidification Monitors Could Protect Nation's $70 Billion Fisheries Industry

Federal scientists and their supporters are seeking increased funding to monitor ocean acidification in an effort to gather additional environmental intelligence.

U.S Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and fellow Democrat Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska toured a lab in Seattle Monday to see the latest technology and highlight their hopes of making ocean acidification monitoring a national priority. 

When it comes to ocean acidification, they say Puget Sound oysters are the canary in the coal mine. Just ask Bill Dewey. He’s with Taylor Shellfish, a company that began working closely with federal scientists in 2006 to figure out what what was happening to their baby oysters.

“We are, I think, one of the first industries in the world to be affected by ocean acidification and know it. And that’s because of the data we’ve been able to collect and see the seawater chemistry that’s coming into our hatchery and killing our oyster larvae,” Dewey said during the senators' tour, which he joined to lend support for their cause. 

Ocean water is becoming more acidic because of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air. And the senators say it is affecting the fishing industry nationwide, from Alaskan crab to Maine lobster.

Dewey says Cantwell was instrumental in getting sophisticated monitoring equipment in place to help his company anticipate swells of acidic ocean water, which they learned cause corrosion that interferes with shell formation. They now have treatment systems in place to change the sea water chemistry in their hatcheries so the oyster larvae can survive.

“And it’s all a result of being able to monitor and understand that chemistry as it’s coming into the hatcheries,” Dewey said.  

And he can now monitor that data via a federal website. There’s even a smartphone app for the job. 

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp
NOAA's ocean acidification monitoring system provides data on a website with a smart phone app, which provides real-time measurements of pH levels and other ocean conditions.

But the system relies on just a handful of buoys, says Chris Meinig, director of engineering at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.

“We have a nationwide buoy network in place, but it’s outfitted with basic sensors. What we’d like to do is use that as our backbone, put new systems, new devices, new autonomous vehicles [in place] that enhance our basic measurements and really add state of the art, ocean acidification sensors," he said.    

As he spoke, Meinig was flanked by a bright yellow underwater glider that looks like a miniature submarine and posters depicting a sail-powered drone. Nearby was a video of something resembling a remote-controlled surfboard that gathers ocean data. He says these prototypes are designed to go out for months at a time in conditions scientists wouldn’t survive.

During the tour, Cantwell said creating a network with all of this new equipment should be a national priority because there are still too many gaps in our knowledge about the effects of ocean acidification.  

“Even the fact that salmon eat the pteropods that are now also having problems forming shells. This is a major issue for all of us,” she said.

Cantwell estimates the fisheries industry in the U.S. is worth $70 billion.

She and Begich say they‘ll soon introduce legislation that would increase funding for ocean acidification monitoring, and their plan will include assessments to deploy the sensors first in areas near high-risk fisheries and fish habitat. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to