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DATE: October 18, 2012 3:50:19 PM PDT
Western's Shannon Point Marine Center Awarded Grant to Study the Impacts of Ocean Acidification

Contact: Steve Sulkin, director, Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center, (360) 650-4583 or steve.sulkin@wwu.edu.

BELLINGHAM – Two scientists at Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center (SPMC) in Anacortes have received a $543,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the impacts of ocean acidification on organisms that form the base of the oceanic food web. 

The integrated relationship between members of the food web – how tiny creatures are the building blocks of an interconnected system of consumers that ends with apex predators like killer whales, above ­– is critical to the health of the marine ecosystem. Ocean acidification is putting at risk the foundation of the oceanic food web, and researchers at Western Washington University are working to discover just how dangerous this threat is to the world's oceans.

Brady Olson, marine scientist at SPMC, and Brooke Love, assistant professor in Western’s Huxley College of the Environment, received the award in collaboration with Julie Keister of the University of Washington. 

The new study is a follow-up to preliminary research they carried out with NSF funding on the impacts of ocean acidification on microscopic plants called phytoplankton.  Phytoplankton are a primary source of energy in ocean systems, converting the sun’s energy into carbon-based energy by photosynthesis.  This organic energy is then transferred through the food web, ultimately supporting higher organisms, including commercially important species.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the world’s oceans have become more acidic and these changes have accelerated in recent decades.  As the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) increases, much of this added CO2 dissolves into the ocean. This leads to a number of changes in ocean chemistry, including a more acidic environment. Such changes in ocean chemistry can affect marine plants and animals in a variety of ways.  Olson and Love’s preliminary studies showed that exposing common species of phytoplankton to acidic conditions can alter their nutritional value to the predators that consume them and therefore affect the transfer of energy through the food web. 

Olson and Love’s new project will examine how the production and storage of fats in phytoplankton exposed to acidic conditions affect the reproduction of one of its principal predators, the copepod.   Copepods are an important component in the oceanic food web, since they are fed upon by finfish, shellfish larvae and other marine animals such as herring, Dungeoness crab, and filter feeders such as baleen whales and whale sharks.  Copepods are prevalent both locally in the Salish Sea and in global oceans.

This integral relationship between members of the food web – how tiny creatures are the building blocks of an interconnected system of consumers that ends with apex predators like killer whales ­– is critical to the health of the marine ecosystem.

Shannon Point’s Brady Olsen said the ripples across the food web from such a decline would be catastrophic.

“If you plug in real animals, it could look like this: copepod populations decline due to poor food quality associated with ocean acidification.  In turn, outwardly migrating juvenile salmon, once reaching estuaries and salt water, may be food limited due to a lack of copepods and small fishes such as juvenile herring, which depend on copepods for their own food.  This could then reduce juvenile salmon survival,” he said. “A further reduction in salmon would have severe economic and biological consequences.”

The grant will also provide funds to upgrade the existing facilities at SPMC for study of ocean acidification.  This improved infrastructure will not only support the new research project, but also the work of scientists and students investigating other aspects of how ocean acidification affects marine systems.

The research project will have a significant instructional component. Western students attending classes at SPMC and engaging in independent research at the marine center will be trained in the techniques being used worldwide to study the effects of ocean acidification.  The project also includes a public-education component that will take the story of the ways in which the university scientists and students are studying ocean acidification to broad public audiences and K-12 schools.

“The K-12 component of this grant is really important for two reasons. First, ocean acidification is a relatively young field and less well known than climate change, its evil twin, but it is very important.  If we want to educate the general public, children are a great place to start,” said Western’s Brooke Love.  “Secondly, teaching is one of the best ways to learn a subject – so this gives a chance for undergraduates to gain experience with the ideas of ocean acidification as they translate it to young students.”

For more information on the NSF ocean acidification grant, contact SPMC Director Steve Sulkin at (360) 650-4583 or steve.sulkin@wwu.edu.

The Shannon Point Marine Center is a facility and program of Western Washington University, located in Anacortes.  Its mission is the promotion of marine science academic programs at the university.  Additional information about SPMC can be found at www.wwu.edu/spmcx.

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