The Hakai Institute, British Columbia
Updated: Jan 25
The Hakai Institute is a pillar of scientific research, cross-border collaborations, and long-term oceanic observations along the coast of British Columbia. Areas of research include topics as diverse as archaeology, oceanography, biology, and earth and atmospheric sciences, just to name a few. Their website also hosts an impressive collection of research databases, real-time data, interactive maps, and educational blogs and videos that offer glimpses into its many ongoing scientific pursuits. Ocean acidification (OA) has been a growing research focus in recent years, with several ongoing initiatives to study the biological and oceanographic aspects of OA in the Pacific Northwest. The list of Hakai Institute research products that have been produced thus far is impressive, and the future for OA research from the Institute is only growing. In 2018, we featured the Burke-o-lator, a machine used to collect multiple parameters of carbonate chemistry data important to the study of OA. For example, the data can be used to calculate the seawater saturation state of carbonates in seawater (calcite and aragonite), indicating how corrosive seawater is for shell-building organisms like oysters. Since that time, other exciting developments include the deployment of new sensors and a buoy to monitor carbonate chemistry in the Pacific Northwest, partnerships with groups in Alaska to use a ferry to collect seawater chemistry data, and the development of a state-of-the-art OA experimental laboratory on Quadra Island, the Marna Lab, that allows researchers to test the biological and ecological impacts of OA, such as measuring shellfish survival, growth, calcification rates, reproductive success, etc. There are also several ongoing projects investigating how shellfish respond to OA stress and other climate change factors on a molecular (genetic) level (co-led by OA CoP Co-Lead, Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith). These projects are essential to protect and produce more resilient aquaculture species in the future. We spoke with Hakai Institute scientists, Dr. Iria Giménez and Dr. Wiley Evans, who gave us a window into some of the exciting OA projects currently underway at the Institute.
One of the Institute’s most recent, cutting-edge advances integrates ocean observation data into biological studies to create highly-realistic future ocean conditions for laboratory experiments on critical shellfish resources. Dr. Wiley Evans, the OA program manager and chemical oceanographer, and Katie Pocock, the OA lab manager, led a project to deploy sensors in Pendrell Sound, providing a detailed ocean chemistry dataset that is used to estimate the variability in ocean conditions expected in the area for the year 2050. These water conditions are then recreated in the lab, creating a more realistic experimental approach where Dr. Iria Giménez, Hakai and UBC Postdoctoral Fellow and OA biology and instrumentation expert, is determining how shellfish will fair in Pendrell Sound 30 years from now.
2050 is an important upcoming milestone for the future of climate action and carbon dioxide emissions. It is in the outer range of when we expect to reach 1.5 oC warming if we achieve net-zero emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Global Warming of 1.5 oC special report. It is also the year where atmospheric emission trajectories start to diverge, depending on the measures we take now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Coincidentally, the B.C. Climate Risk Assessment report also focuses on the 2050s (2040 – 2059).
Pendrell Sound isn’t just a randomly selected site, either. Nestled in the Discovery Islands (East Redonda Island) off mainland B.C., this small sound is one of only two places in the Pacific northwest with consistent natural reproductive (recruitment) events, leading to reliable wild populations of the Pacific/Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas – the other location being Willapa Bay, Washington. Pacific oysters, arguably the most important B.C. aquaculture species, are native to Japan, with many operators relying on hatchery produced “seed” (the industry term for small juvenile shellfish). The waters of Pendrell Sound are slightly warmer than surrounding bodies of water, allowing for consistent yearly recruitment of wild juvenile (seed) Pacific oysters that are not usually tolerant of B.C.’s cold waters. Importantly for the shellfish industry, this means that aquaculture operators can locally source wild seed from companies in Pendrell Sound, such as Aphrodite’s Garden Oyster Company. But, shell-building animals like the Pacific oyster, as well as other commercially important aquaculture and wild fishery species such as mussels, scallops, and clams, are expected to be highly vulnerable to continued OA. Already along the west coast of Canada and the U.S., shellfish larvae have experienced massive die-off events since as early as 2007, leading to repeated, devastating financial losses for the industry. The main cause is corrosive water conditions from natural upwelling events potentially being exacerbated by decreases in ocean pH due to OA. Shellfish aquaculture operators, fishermen, and scientists alike are therefore trying to determine how shellfish (including non-commercial, native species) are affected by OA to prevent further impacts of OA, protect coastal ecosystems, and create a more resilient shellfish industry. One question on everyone’s mind is: faced with the continuing threat of climate change, including OA, how healthy will these wild populations of Pacific oysters in Pendrell Sound be in the future? Will wild seed sources still be a viable option for shellfish farmers in 2050?
Conveniently, Hakai scientists were well-poised to answer these questions. Firstly, Dr. Evans and collaborators had previously established a partnership with Aphrodite’s Garden Oyster Co. to deploy sensors on the company’s aquaculture rafts. These sensors measured the water chemistry of Pendrell Sound every 30 minutes from April to October, and ground-truthed with discrete measurements of seawater CO2 content. By including these high-frequency sensor observation datasets, there is really dense, highly accurate data for predicting what conditions and variability will be like in 2050. Secondly, the Marna Lab has state-of-the art experimental systems that allow tight control over water conditions, meaning these future water conditions, including natural seasonal variability, can be recreated in the lab. The system used for this project consists of a series of mesocosm tanks, large 350 L tanks each with independent control of temperature and pH. Carbon dioxide is bubbled into the water in tightly controlled amounts, allowing for precise manipulation of seawater of pH in each of the tanks.
For the biological experiments, the first question Dr. Giménez wants to address is: Do adult oysters exposed to stressful ocean conditions produce tougher or weaker offspring? Dr. Giménez has conducted similar experiments on mussels, but having access to an observational dataset that includes seasonal variability data allows more accurate estimations of future conditions for specific areas like Pendrell Sound. There are two parts to the experiment tailored to match water conditions at specific times of the year that are important to an oyster’s lifecycle. First, Pacific oysters are collected from experimental rafts near the Marna lab and placed in experimental conditions that mimicked Pendrell Sound in 2050. The oysters are held for two months to capture their natural period of gametogenesis (formation of eggs and sperm). Once oyster gametes (eggs and sperm) are fully developed, they can be artificially induced to release these into the water column (a process called spawning) by changing the temperature of the water. The eggs and sperm are then collected and mixed. Immediately after fertilization, the second phase of the experiment then re-exposes the newly formed embryos to the appropriate seasonal conditions that they would naturally experience in Pendrell Sound, 2050, for about ten days. This question will be important to accurately gauge the future of wild Pacific oyster seed in Pendrell Sound.
Merging oceanographic datasets with biological experiments is a novel and exciting avenue of producing more accurate research results with important real-world impacts.
“Hakai’s culture of cross-collaboration and technical development allows us to be uniquely positioned to use high-frequency observational acidification data to inform the design of complex experiments that better reflect the dynamic conditions of coastal environments,” says Dr. Giménez.
That is the thing with Hakai Institute – they’re constantly pushing the envelope. Every experimental implementation and sensor deployment builds on the last and adding something new. Collaborations between biologists and oceanographers, like Dr. Giménez and Dr. Evans, lead to innovative new experimental designs. Both Dr. Giménez and Dr. Evans agree that it creates a very fast-paced research environment. But it is this innovation and implementation that constantly produces cutting-edge research, putting the Hakai Institute at the forefront of ocean acidification research.
Thanks to Dr. Evans and Dr. Giménez for their time, suggestions, and helpful edits that shaped this article. Thanks also to Josh Silberg (Hakai Institute Science Communications Coordinator) for the pictures, videos, and list of blog posts/articles.
Hakai OA Resources:
From Hakai Institute Blog: Meet the Burke-o-Lator (Apr., 2016) A Swell to Quell the Dissolution of Shell (Oct., 2016) It's a Buoy (includes video - May, 2018) Introducing the Marna Lab (includes video – Oct., 2018) Crossing Ocean Borders (May, 2019) A Buoy's Winter Tune-Up (Feb., 2020) Do Mussels on Acid Produce Better Babies? (includes video – Apr., 2020)
From the OA CoP Blog: Burke-o-Lator allows measurement of multiple parameters of Ocean Acidification in real time (Nov., 2018)
Publications: Visit https://www.hakai.org/publications/ for a list of publications on OA and other research produced by the Hakai Institute
Barton, A., G.G. Waldbusser, R.A. Feely, S.B. Weisberg, J.A. Newton, B. Hales, S. Cudd, B. Eudeline, C.J. Langdon, I. Jefferds, T. King, A. Suhrbier, and K. McLaughlin. 2015. Impacts of coastal acidification on the Pacific Northwest shellfish industry and adaptation strategies implemented in response. Oceanography 28(2):146–159, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2015.38.