WWU scientists plan study on acidification in ocean food web

Two scientists at Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center 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 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, which are a primary source of energy in ocean systems and convert the sun’s energy into carbon-based energy by photosynthesis.

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

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 and Dungeness crab, as well as filter feeders such as baleen whales and whale sharks.

Copepods are prevalent both locally in the Salish Sea and in global oceans.

The duo’s preliminary studies have shown 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.

Shannon Point’s Brady Olsen said the ripples across the food web starting with changes to the phytoplankton 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,” Olsen said, in a press release. “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. A further reduction in salmon would have severe economic and biological consequences.”

The grant will also provide funds to upgrade the existing facilities at the marine center for study of ocean acidification.

The research project will have an instructional component, as well. WWU students attending classes or doing research at the marine center and engaging in will learn techniques used worldwide to study the effects of ocean acidification.

The grant also funds a public-education component, allowing researchers to share their work with students in grade school.

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

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