By Darryl Fears
Crabs are bulking up on carbon pollution that pours out of power plants, factories and vehicles and settles in the oceans, turning the tough crustaceans into even more fearsome predators.
That presents a major problem for the Chesapeake Bay, where crabs eat oysters. In a life-isn’t-fair twist, the same carbon that crabs absorb to grow bigger stymies the development of oysters.
“Higher levels of carbon in the ocean are causing oysters to grow slower, and their predators — such as blue crabs — to grow faster,” Justin Baker Ries, a marine geologist at the University of North Carolina’s Aquarium Research Center, said in an recent interview.
Over the next 75 to 100 years, ocean acidification could supersize blue crabs, which may then eat more oysters and other organisms and possibly throw the food chain of the nation’s largest estuary out of whack.
That would undermine an effort to rebuild the stocks of both creatures. Virginia and Maryland are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into rebuilding the populations of blue crabs and oysters to some semblance of their historical numbers.
The problem extends beyond crabs and the Chesapeake Bay. Lobsters and shrimp also are bulking up on carbon dioxide along the Atlantic coast. Like oysters, coral that helps protect small organisms from big predators is being adversely affected by higher acidity in the waters.
Crabs put away carbon like nobody’s business. The more they eat, the faster they molt, a growth spurt during which their shells go soft. Carbon helps speed the process so that they emerge bigger and perhaps stronger, less vulnerable to predators and more formidable predators themselves.
At UNC, marine geologists are analyzing video of the slaughter that took place when they put mud crabs and oysters in tanks they intentionally polluted with carbon over three months for a 2011 study.
It was like watching lions tear apart lambs. The crabs scurried from their side of the tanks, banged on the shells of the traumatized oysters, pried them open with a claw in a way similar to what humans do with a knife at restaurants and gobbled them down.
For crab lovers, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Carbon-absorbing crabs put all their energy into upgrading shells, not flesh — like a mansion without much furniture. So diners might be disappointed years from now when they crack open huge crabs and find little meat.
The research showing the effects of carbon on marine organisms was published in the journal Geology in 2009. The study, led by Ries and co-authored with Anne L. Cohen and Daniel C. McCorkle, and found that crabs, lobsters and shrimp grew bigger more rapidly as carbon pollution increased. Chesapeake blue crabs grew nearly four times faster in high-carbon tanks than in low-carbon tanks.
But under the same conditions, oysters, scallops and other organisms struggle to grow, making them more vulnerable to carnivores. Oysters in high-carbon tanks grew at only one-quarter the speed they did in low-carbon conditions, according to the study.
“It’s taking them longer to go from oyster spat to oyster adult,” said Luke Dodd, a doctoral candidate at UNC who put the crabs in a tank with oysters. “When you’re a baby, there’s tons of predators that want to eat you up.”
But when they put mud crabs and oysters together in the tanks polluted with carbon, Dodd, Michael F. Piehler of UNC and Jonathan Grabowski of Northeastern University observed something they didn’t expect, a response that gave oysters a prayer.
They went over to the oysters, but they didn’t eat as many — sometimes fewer than half of what other crabs ate under normal conditions. Dodd scratched his head. “Acidification may be confusing the crab,” he said. The situation, he concluded, “is more complicated than you’d be led to believe.”
Ries said crabs might be getting loopy from all that carbon in their systems, depriving them of oxygen and putting them in a fog.
Both researchers said that acidification happens so slowly that crabs may eventually grow more accustomed to it. “You can’t discount evolution taking over,” Dodd said.
- from the washington post, Crabs, supersized by carbon pollution, may upset Chesapeake’s balance