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What lobster babies being studied in a Virginia lab can tell us about the changing ocean

Brittany Jellison, a post-doctoral research associate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, holds one of the lobsters part of an ocean acidification experiment in December 2020.

VIRGINIA INSTITUTE OF MARINE SCIENCE

By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 26, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Inside water tanks at a laboratory along the York River, thousands of baby lobsters are developing — tiny black eggs stored safely under their mothers’ tails.

The crustacean’s gestation is akin to a human’s, lasting at least eight or nine months before the eggs hatch. Until they do, they’ll be carefully watched by scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

A group of researchers there recently began one of the longest-running studies of how ocean warming and acidification — both symptoms of climate change — could impact a lobster’s development early in life.

“With oysters and shellfish, we know a lot more about the larval stage,” said Emily Rivest, an assistant professor at the institute overseeing the experiment. “But with lobsters, since the egg period is so long, no one’s done a study about what happens when you have these conditions for so long. That seems like an important first step.”

The project is using a $460,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Sea Grant’s American Lobster Initiative, and is being closely monitored by lobstermen in the Gulf of Maine, where waters have already been rapidly warming. That’s where these lobsters came from.

“The industry is eager to know what will happen in the future and how to plan for that,” said Jeff Shields, a VIMS professor who helped secure the grant.

As humans burn fossil fuels and release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, much of it gets absorbed in the ocean. The water’s pH level goes down, acid levels rise and there are fewer ions and minerals needed for marine creatures like oysters to build shells.

The ocean’s pH has dropped about 0.1 on the pH scale since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which amounts to a nearly 30 percent increase in acidity, according to NOAA. By the end of this century, the acidity levels could increase by nearly 150 percent, “resulting in a pH that the oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years,” the agency says.

Scientists and fishermen alike want to learn more about what that means for marine life.

With the lobsters at their Gloucester Point lab, VIMS researchers are studying not only how the crustacean eggs grow under warming or acidification conditions, but also a combination. There are six mother lobsters in each of four total scenarios, with a control group as the last.

At the outset, it’s hard to predict what effects will be observed, said Brittany Jellison, a postdoctoral research associate leading the experiment. It could be that impacts in the combination group cancel each other out, or they could make things much worse.

The scientists are taking a “holistic approach,” not focused on any one metric of the lobsters’ growth, she added.

“It builds this larger story of how this phase in their life is changing because of ocean acidification,” Jellison said.

That involves photographing the eggs through a microscope to track development, taking underwater videos of how the mothers care for the babies, monitoring their oxygen consumption to track their metabolism and freezing some eggs to later investigate chemical aspects and changes in enzyme activity, said Abbey Sisti, a doctoral student looking at lobster behavior. They’re even hoping to look at the creatures’ heartbeats.

Rivest had also been working on a project to study acidification’s impacts on oyster development, but it’s been put on the back burner due to pandemic constraints, she said. So far, though, “oysters seem to be very resilient, which is great news,” she said.

After the eggs hatch at the VIMS lab, Jellison said the researchers hope to keep them awhile and see whether the different conditions affect them.

But what happens to the lobsters after the experiment? She flashes a smile under her mask.

“We think it would be an interesting idea to try and get local chefs involved with taking our lobsters at the end and creating a dish,” Jellison said. “And then we can look at how the taste might change in the lobsters based on the conditions.”

The researchers also plan to bring in two educators — one from the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School, one from Maine — who can develop lesson plans based on the research and get the community involved.

Oysters appear to be a more pressing issue when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay. But Shields said people forget that lobsters live here, too.

They stretch from the Northeast down to Georgia, he said, but tend to be farther offshore and in deeper waters. He’s even caught one near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

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