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How climate change threatens the seas

By Dan Vergano (USA Today) - March 28, 2013

The tide rolls out on a chilly March evening, and the oystermen roll in, steel rakes in hand, hip boots crunching on the gravel beneath a starry, velvet sky.

As they prepare to harvest some of the sweetest shellfish on the planet, a danger lurks beyond the shore that will eventually threaten clams, mussels, everything with a shell or that eats something with a shell. The entire food chain could be affected. That means fish, fishermen and, perhaps, you.

“Ocean acidification,” the shifting of the ocean’s water toward the acidic side of its chemical balance, has been driven by climate change and has brought increasingly corrosive seawater to the surface along the West Coast and the inlets of Puget Sound, a center of the $111 million shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest.

USA TODAY traveled to the tendrils of Oyster Bay as the second stop in a year-long series to explore places where climate change is already affecting lives.

The acidification taking place here guarantees the same for the rest of the world’s oceans in the years ahead. This isn’t the kind of acid that burns holes in chemist’s shirt sleeves; ocean water is actually slightly alkaline. But since the start of the industrial revolution, the world’s oceans have grown nearly 30% more acidic, according to a 2009 Scientific Committee on Oceanic Resources report. Why? Climate change, where heat-trapping carbon dioxide emitted into the air by burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels ends up as excess carbonic acid absorbed into the ocean.

That shift hurts creatures like oysters that build shells or fish that eat those creatures or folks like shellfish farmer Bill Dewey, who makes his living off the ocean.

“As fresh as they get, you could eat one now,” says Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Wash., shucking an oyster open, mud running from its shell to reveal the opulent meat within, silver and white in the starlight. The black lip curling around the sweet-tasting shellfish reveals it to be a Pacific oyster, farmed worldwide.

“Folks think we just get rich picking oysters off the ground. A lot of work goes into every one of these, and we can’t afford to lose any of them,” Dewey says.

Lose them they have, and lose them they will, to the water lapping at Dewey’s hip boots where the low tide meets the flats.

“We are looking into the future happening now,” Dewey says. And researchers are seeing similar corrosive effects on Florida’s coral reefs that shelter young fish and on the tiny sea snails that feed salmon and other species in the Pacific Ocean.