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  • Research on the effects of ocean acidification, climate change, and deoxygenation on marine organisms


Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) Conservation Biology CB - Ecosystem Science; CB - Genetics and Evolution


Ocean Acidification (OA) studies
Research on the effects of ocean acidification, climate change, and deoxygenation on marine organisms
NWFSC scientists are studying the biological effects of ocean acidification on larval geoduck, Pacific oyster, krill, copepods and pteropods (zooplankton that are food for the fish we eat), Dungeness crabs, market squid, surfsmelt and rockfish, all North Pacific species of economic, ecological, or conservation concern that are potentially vulnerable to the effects of ocean acidification, climate change, and deoxygenation. The NWFSC Ocean Acidification (OA) team has built an experimental state-of-the-art facility for growing animals in conditions that mimic pre-industrial, current, and future ocean carbon dioxide levels to observe changes in animal growth, survival and behavior. To more closely mimic conditions that marine organisms experience in the ocean, scientists use the ocean acidification facility to reproduce the natural changes that occur in carbon dioxide levels, temperature, and oxygen concentrations at daily, weekly and seasonal scales.

The experimental system allows for the dynamic control of pCO2 and other environmental parameters, which enables us to mimic the natural patterns of variability in carbon chemistry that occur on diurnal and tidal cycles and with upwelling events and phytoplankton blooms. The system also provides control over temperature, dissolved oxygen, food delivery and photoperiod, allowing for experiments on multiple stressors. The relatively high water volumes in the system permit simultaneous experiments on multiple species. The laboratory requires constant uptake to maintain its function and will be modified as needed to support our research program.

In addition to the laboratory work, the NWFSC OA team is modeling the effects of ocean acidification on regional marine species and ecosystems using food web models, life-cycle models, and bioenvelope models.

Finally, the NWFSC OA team is collaborating with other Genetics and Evolution Program staff and with other NWFSC scientists to examine the genetic effects of exposure to ocean acidification in some of these organisms (notably, Dungeness crab, representing one of the most lucrative fisheries in the United States), using proven genetic breeding designs and pedigree analyses, combined with experimental treatments and exposure over multiple generations.

Research on ocean acidification's effects on marine organisms is a focal issue for NMFS and is supported in part by NOAA's Ocean Acidification Program (part of the agency's office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research). This work has components involving laboratory experiments and outreach. Outreach projects by the NWFSC OA research team include participation in community events (e.g., public presentations, working with school groups, etc.) and development of education materials. They also mentor a relatively large number of undergraduate interns and provide other graduate and undergraduate research opportunities.

Research Themes

Ecosystem approach to improve management of marine resources
The California Current Large Marine Ecosystem, Puget Sound and the Columbia River Basin are home to a wide range of freshwater and marine resources that provide a wealth of ecosystem goods and services. Ensuring the resiliency and productivity of the California Current and Pacific Northwest ecosystems requires an integrated understanding of their structure, function, and vulnerability to increased human population growth in coastal communities and competing uses of coastal waterways and oceans. The NWFSC‘s approach to understanding these large ecosystems integrates studies across ecosystems (terrestrial, freshwater, and marine) and scientific disciplines to inform resource managers responsible for conserving marine resources.
Habitats to support sustainable fisheries and recovered populations
Healthy oceans, coastal waters, and riverine habitats provide the foundation for aquatic resources used by a diversity of species and society. Protecting marine, estuarine and freshwater ecosystems that support these species relies on science to link habitat condition/processes and the biological effects of restoration actions. The NWFSC provides the habitat science behind many management actions taken by NOAA Fisheries and other natural resource agencies to protect and recover aquatic ecosystems and living marine resources. The NWFSC also maintains a longstanding focus on toxic chemical contaminants, as a foundation for regional and national research on pollution threats to fisheries and protected resources.
Sustainable, safe and secure seafood for healthy populations and vibrant communities
Effective fisheries management provides economic opportunities and ensures the long-term sustainability of fisheries and the habitats on which they depend. The NWFSC seeks to improve the quality and quantity of data used in stock assessments, the methods for assessing stocks and ecosystem sustainability within the context of human modification of the environment. The NWFSC also provides state-of-the-art science and technology to support aquaculture while protecting and maintaining ecosystem health. Further, pathogens, toxins from harmful algal blooms (HABs), chemical contaminants and other stressors of marine ecosystems pose significant risks to health of both seafood resources and to humans. The NWFSC focuses on research to improve understanding of those risks, how to forecast them, and identify means to mitigate their impacts.

Research Foci

Characterize ecological interactions (e.g. predation, competition, parasitism, disease, etc.) within and among species
Predator-prey interactions, inter- and intra-specific competition, and parasites and pathogens influence the survival, growth, and reproductive success of anadromous and marine fishes, marine mammals and other marine organisms. Moreover, anthropogenic stressors, such as pollution and fishing, can influence these interactions. Because of the complex nature of these interactions, addressing questions about ecological interactions will require novel field and laboratory studies and analyses. This includes ecosystem models, use of innovative technologies (e.g., otolith microchemistry and stable isotopes), integration of sample collection efforts with those of the Ocean Observing System entities on the west coast, and quantifying interactions among environmental stressors, species behavior and ecosystem processes.
Characterize relationships between habitat and ecosystem processes, climate variation, and the viability of organisms
Developing effective conservation and restoration strategies for species or populations requires a clear understanding of how ecosystem processes and climate change will influence the viability of organisms in the future. Key research needs include (1) evaluating the vulnerability of organisms and ecosystems to climate change and human impacts (e.g., fishing, pollution, land use), and (2) devising adaptation strategies that will help achieve conservation goals despite climate change and increasing human pressures. Understanding how climate change or trends in human impacts might influence organisms is based on an understanding of linkages between ecosystem processes, habitat conditions, and abundance, survival or demographics of organisms. This necessitates modeling influences of ecosystem processes on habitats and species, or developing models to examine influences of human pressures on population or ecosystem dynamics. With this foundation, vulnerability assessments can focus on understanding how interactions between climate change and human impacts influence vulnerability of species or populations. Adaptation strategies require knowledge of current conservation needs, predictions of how those needs might change as a result of climate change or future human impacts, and assessments of the robustness of alternative conservation strategies or techniques to climate trends.
Describe the interaction between human activities, particularly harvest of marine resources, and ecosystem function
Humans are an integral component of ecosystems. These ecosystems provide goods and services such as fish and seafood harvests, but these activities and others such as habitat alteration, pollution, and ocean acidification, can have strong impacts. Understanding the nature of these interactions will require observational and experimental studies aimed at identifying ecosystem-level responses to human activities, both individually and cumulatively, as well as human responses to ecosystem changes. Modeling spatial choices for harvesting and other human activities that are affected by ecosystem integrity, for example, can support a better understanding of the effects of ecosystembased management actions.
Develop research and technology to foster innovative and sustainable approaches to aquaculture
The NOAA Aquaculture Policy calls for enabling sustainable aquaculture that provides domestic jobs, products, and services and that is in harmony with healthy, productive, and resilient marine ecosystems. To achieve these goals, NWFSC’s research examines scientific and technical issues to support aquaculture production. NWFSC research also considers potential impacts of aquaculture practices on the environment and on wild populations of fish and shellfish and methods for diminishing those impacts. Specific research objectives include (1) identify methods for reducing reliance on forage fish protein and oil in aquaculture feeds; this includes the evaluation of plant and microbe-based alternatives for fish meal and oil, because fishmeal and oil used in producing artificial fish diets is unsustainable and often a source of contaminants, (2) evaluate and model potential genetic impacts of aquaculture escapes on natural populations, (3) develop shellfish research that will support regional initiatives, such as the Washington Shellfish Initiative, especially native shellfish restoration and (4) develop new marine species for aquaculture and shore-based marine recirculating aquaculture systems.
Provide scientific support for the implementation of ecosystem-based management
Fisheries scientists and managers recognize the potential for ecosystem-based management to improve sustain the delivery of ecosystem goods and services, including sustainable fisheries resources. An Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) is one approach that examines all available information on relevant physical, chemical, ecological and human processes in relation to specified ecosystem management objectives. IEAs provide an efficient, transparent means of summarizing the status of ecosystem components, screening and prioritizing potential risks, and evaluating alternative management strategies against a backdrop of environmental variability. To perform IEAs of major ecosystems will require development of project components, including new and existing data, to develop a suite of indicators that characterize the ecosystem. Careful assessment of ecosystem indicators will provide a powerful means for assessing management efficacy and a basis for adapting and improving management practices. A major focus will be to produce the initial IEA of the California Current LME and then provide annual updates.
Understand how climate influences ecosystem variability
Effective ecosystem management will require an understanding of how climate variability and climate change will alter riverine, estuarine, and marine habitats and consequently how this will affect ecosystem status, function and recovery. Key research elements include better understanding of historical ecological variability through traditional (i.e., indigenous) sources, exploring the vulnerability of key species and biotic communities to expected habitat changes, including decreasing stream flow, increased flood frequency, increasing stream temperature, sea level rise, ocean acidification, shifts in ocean currents, and changed frequency and extent of deoxygenated zones. A secondary goal is to improve understanding of how ecosystems respond to year-to-year and decadal climate variability. Achieving these research goals will provide NOAA and state and local governments with the knowledge and tools needed to incorporate climate change and variability into management of living marine resources.


carbon dioxide emissions
carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuel and changes in land use.
climate change
changes in climate
genetics, ecology, life history
ecosystem modeling
end-to-end models
food web
complex of interrelated food chains in an ecological community
use of genetic markers to determine differential reproductive success between adults with different life histories
ocean acidification
change in ocean pH


None associated


Class Actinopterygii
ray-finned fishes
Class Malacostraca
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Echinodermata
Phylum Mollusca


Chris Harvey
Giles Goetz
Jonathan Reum
Krista Nichols
Michael Maher
Paul McElhany
Principal Investigator
Shallin Busch