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Researcher Jill Bible Studies the Effects of Ocean Acidification on Olympia Oysters and Advocates Science Education

On the Sonoma coast of Northern California, there is an incredible education and research institution that is dedicated to studying the organisms and ecosystems of our oceans. Bodega Marine Laboratory (BML) is home to scientists and students who investigate the environmental processes at the land and sea interface. Jill Bible is a researcher earning her PhD at BML, and she is very interested in one process in particular – ocean acidification. Her research with Olympia oysters gives us crucial information about how human activity is affecting shell-building creatures. Jill shares her research with us and explains why science education helps us develop solutions and promotes positive change.

ocean acidification
Jill setting up an experiment in San Francisco Bay.
Photo provided by Jill Bible.

What is the importance of having a research facility like Bodega Marine Lab?

The Bodega Marine Lab is part of the University of California, Davis. It is home to diverse researchers studying both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. We work together to address both basic scientific questions and complex environmental problems. Bodega Marine Lab is devoted not only to world-class scientific research, but also to teaching and outreach. Research facilities like the Bodega Marine Lab are critical in helping us understand our world better (especially the interesting and important processes that take place where the land meets the sea), and in teaching both future scientists and the general public about our precious coastal resources.

Can you give us an overview of your work with Olympia oysters? What results have you seen?

I am interested in how humans have impacted and are continuing to impact Olympia oysters. Olympia oysters are the only species of oyster that occurs naturally on the West Coast of North America. Other species, like many of those that appear on our dinner plates, were brought in from other parts of the world like Japan after Olympia oyster numbers declined. Olympia oyster populations plummeted about a hundred years ago due primarily to overharvesting. There is growing interest in restoring populations of Olympia oysters because they are part of the natural West Coast landscape, they provide habitat for dozens of different tiny invertebrates, they filter water, and they provide shoreline protection. However, to restore them successfully we need to know more about how they are responding or will respond to the many ocean changes that are occurring now or are expected to occur in the future.

ocean acidification
Olympia oysters in Berkeley.
Photo provided by Jill Bible.

In particular, I am studying whether some populations of this species (oysters from different estuaries or different sites within a large estuary) might be more or less vulnerable to human-caused ocean changes, such as ocean acidification, invasive species, and changes in temperature and salinity due to climate change. So far, we have found that not all Olympia oysters are alike! Some populations of Olympia oysters are particularly vulnerable to low salinity stress. This means that not all Olympia oysters will respond the same way when storms and freshwater run-off become more severe with climate change. Knowing this can help us devise the best way to protect and restore this species.

Why is it so important to study the effects of ocean acidification?

Ocean acidification is a global problem caused by an influx of carbon dioxide to the world’s oceans. About a third of the carbon dioxide that humans emit into the atmosphere, whether from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, or other processes, is absorbed by the oceans. Once in seawater, carbon dioxide undergoes a series of chemical changes that makes the seawater more acidic.

In acidified waters, organisms have a harder time building their hard parts, like skeletons and shells. That includes corals, crabs, mussels, and oysters, as well as lots of other organisms that are at the base of the food chain. This means that ocean acidification can have rippling impacts all the way up the food chain to fish, marine mammals, and humans.

Ocean acidification is not just a problem for the future. The ocean has changed and is changing measurably. We have seen a consistent decrease in ph (or increase in acidity) over time, and we know those chemical changes are having biological implications.

Scientists understand the chemical process of ocean acidification and this is a dramatic and rapid change. Although we know some of the ways in which ocean acidification is affecting marine plants and animals, we don’t fully understand all the biological implications. It is a very active and critically important area of research.

What other research work does your lab conduct?

There is a wide range of research being conducted at Bodega Marine Lab. There are oceanographers looking at how pH changes along the West Coast. There are toxicologists learning about how toxins affect marine life. There are conservation biologists trying to save the endangered white abalone. To learn more about the exciting research taking place at the lab, you can visit the BML research programs website site.

Can you explain some of the implications of your research?

Because my research is identifying whether certain populations of Olympia oysters are vulnerable or robust against ocean change, it can help managers prioritize. For example, if we know that some populations of oysters are particularly vulnerable, it might help us to relieve some stressors and help those populations survive. Alternatively, if we know some populations are particularly robust against some of the projected ocean changes we might prioritize their conservation to ensure that we have some oysters that will survive future changes.

ocean acidification
Researchers like Jill are working towards understanding how ocean acidification affects shelled animals like this Olympia oyster.
Photo provided by Jill Bible.

You’ve taken a strong interest in teaching others about your research; why is education surrounding ocean acidification important for teachers and students?

I think science education, in general, is critically important for many reasons. First, science is an extraordinarily exciting and creative field. Scientists are curious about the world: they ask questions and then devise creative ways to answer those questions. It is amazingly fun and I think science education can help students interact with their environment and become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, which is useful in life, not just in science.

Also, so many of the crucial decisions we are making as a society are influenced by our understanding of science and the world around us. For this reason, it is not only important to educate the next generation of scientists, but for everyone in our society to become more scientifically literate.

In terms of ocean acidification, it is a pressing problem that everyone should be aware of. Like climate change, it is caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Although some of the associated ocean changes have already occurred, we need to decrease the negative impacts by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we emit. Because humans are the cause of this problem, we are absolutely the solution as well and educating as many people about it is critical in promoting change and solutions.

ocean acidification
Jill prepares food for oysters at Bodega Marine Lab.
Photo provided by Jill Bible.

Tell us about your time helping develop the Teacher Institute for Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

While working in the education division at the California Academy of Sciences, I helped launch a new program in teacher professional development called the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability (TISS). The aim of TISS was to provide teachers with the tools and techniques to improve the quantity and quality of science taught in schools, and to inspire the next generation to protect the planet. TISS is an in-depth, two-year program for elementary school teachers that includes workshops at the California Academy of Sciences, in class visits from science coaches, stimulating field trips, and a host of resources for enhancing science and sustainability curriculum in the classroom.

What would you tell an audience of seafood consumers (businesses and residents) about the impact of ocean acidification?

Ocean acidification is already having impacts on some of the seafood we enjoy and rely on. There have been die offs of oysters over the last few years in Oregon and Washington that are connected to these chemical changes in the ocean. In addition to affecting the shellfish industry (because it is difficult to make hard body parts in acidified waters), ocean acidification can have far-reaching implications since it affects lots of marine life at the base of the food chain.

Ocean acidification is thus an important issue for the sustainability of our marine ecosystems and the fisheries that we depend on. It is an issue that anyone who cares about the ocean – whether as a seafood consumer, scuba diver, scientist, or nature lover – should learn about.

Understanding and Communicating Science

We are already seeing the effects of ocean acidification in our oceans. It is critical that we pay attention and make the effort to understand what it means and how it will further impact our lives. Researchers like Jill Bible are forging the way for greater scientific clarity and communicating this science to us. As seafood consumers, we must comprehend the looming threat of ocean acidification and do our part to ensure healthier ocean ecosystems. Take the first step by purchasing your seafood from distributors certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, such as Pucci Foods.

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