Oysters – A Pearl of the Past?

“Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear, we can begin to feed.” Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter

Oysters Rockefeller, oysters on the half shell, oyster stew, fried oysters . . . for the appreciative connoisseur, this delectable mollusk is one of the high pleasures of dining. Despite its popularity, it is a dish whose supply is dwindling. There are a number of causes including over-harvesting, but one in particular has a systems character. [more]

As reported in the accessible and educational marine ecology blog Kraken and Friends* the pH of our oceans is dropping. The ocean water is more acidic due to the absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Once in the water, the carbon dioxide combines with the water molecules to form carbonic acid. This process, known as “ocean acidification,” happens even more readily in cooler waters. 

The problem is that the carbonic acid in the water reacts with the shells of marine animals like oysters, mussels, crabs, and lobsters weakening the shells and jeopardizing the health of the animal. By requiring the animal to direct more energy into building its shell, the acidification draws energy away from its other critical life processes thereby weakening it to the point of death.  With increasing levels of CO2 being emitted into the air, ocean acidification is becoming a more significant issue for fisheries, particularly in colder waters like those of the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, oyster farms in the Pacific Northwest and in Maine have already begun to experience extensive mortality among young oysters signaling to scientists that the dropping pH is actually affecting the populations. This has begun the search for solutions in earnest.

From a systems perspective, the problem is complex and interrelated. As the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere increases, the amount absorbed into the ocean water increases. This in turn lowers the pH of the ocean water which stresses the shell-producing marine population. The resulting increase in mortality among those animals reduces their numbers and decreases the harvest. 

But because of the systemic nature of the cause and effect structure, care must be exercised in crafting a solution. Any solution must be directed to reducing the unbalancing factor (CO2 in the system) and restoring the natural balance or coping with the unbalance without introducing further or different imbalances.

In some limited environments such as individual hatcheries, an answer has been found in water treatment that raise the pH of the water in the hatchery. This allows the water in the hatchery to be maintained at a non-stressing pH level in which young oysters can develop normally. But this is a local solution, not a system solution.

At the policy level, some states – such as Maine – are taking positive steps toward understanding and addressing ocean and coastal acidification. The US Congress is considering a number of legislative proposals that would fund research and development efforts. As good as some of the state and federal proposals are, the proliferation of approaches stands to create a patchwork of different programs and projects which lack any overall coordination.

Whatever solution(s) may ultimately be brought to bear, their maximum effectiveness will depend upon the degree to which they consider the systemic nature of the problem. There are a number of potential traps and pitfalls. Ill considered “fixes” could result in unintended consequences that would then lead to problems that would require their own abatement. Research and development efforts could be duplicated wasting precious resources. Or they might overlook some important aspect of the problem or solution sets.

That’s where the wisdom of systems engineering offers leverage. The problem is a systems problem at several levels. It’s tempting to conclude that the answer is to reduce CO2 emissions. But it’s not that simple. While that would solve the oyster mortality problem, it is easier said than done. Reducing carbon emissions is a clear goal in more than one context, but the path to that goal is anything but easy. Too many interests interact in too many ways to simply dial back carbon emissions. Technological solutions that reduce emissions while balancing other impacts are certainly a part of the solution set. But that cannot be the only answer – especially when the clock ticks as species move toward extinction.

Other solutions are being explored. Some oyster species seem to be resistant to the acidification. Can they be introduced in place of the dwindling species as subjects of food harvesting? What are the lessons from other species introduction efforts? Are the resistant species commercially viable?

Can the genetic traits that make these species resistant to lowered pH in their marine environment be replicated in the struggling species? Are such modifications desirable? What are the impacts?

It is clear that responsible research is required to answer these and other questions surrounding a complex systemic problem. Allocating research resources to the problem is a systems problem in and of itself.

Scarce resources must be applied in a systemic and coordinated way to find a practical solution or solutions. Any solution considered must account for the systemic nature of the problem and its environment. There are systems questions aplenty in the choice of policy and the application of science. Sorting and accounting for these calls for a coordinated systems approach.

Science is important in addressing this problem. So are legislative and regulatory tradecraft. But the overarching concern has to be the systems considerations. So while we enjoy our oysters this summer, we should think like systems engineers about how to assure that children and grandchildren can continue to know that pleasure.

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