At this point, you are probably well aware of a lot of the ways carbon dioxide emissions are destroying the planet. We are already dealing with a warmer climate, invasive sea levels, crop-threatening droughts, and violent wildfires. Our carbon footprint's effects goes even deeper than what we see on land. A major effect that not so many people know about is one we can't even see because it's hidden within in the dark and busy ocean.

How does CO2 in the atmosphere affect the ocean?

beach house, shoreline, Shore, beaches, bay, holiday, vacation, Summer, sand, sea, Ocean, Beach, California, water
Denise Uy

According to the Ted Talk titled how pollution is changing the ocean's chemistry, the ocean actually absorbs about 25% of the carbon dioxide present in the air. If the ocean didn't take in some of this greenhouse gas, we would be experiencing even more extreme on-land consequences. The Earth would already be warmer, water supplies would be shrinking faster, and the weather would be even more severe. So, you can thank the ocean for slowing down the rate of climate change for us.

What does CO2 have to do with fish?

Carbonate ions are tiny molecules that are essential to the creation and maintenance of shells of animals like shrimp, oysters, crabs, clams, and lobsters. The carbon dioxide from the air dissolves in the water, undergoing chemical reactions which make the ocean more and more acidic. When the ocean becomes acidic, the amount of carbonate ions available for the shells of animals significantly decreases.

shellfish, paella, seafood
Kara Schiaparelli

The increasing acidity level of the ocean is making it harder for many animals to make their shells. According to oceanographer Triona McGraw, the ocean's acidity levels are predicted to actually dissolve the shells and skeletons of these animals by 2100. Basically, this means that within our lifetime, the ocean is expected to become toxic to the animals it has supported for millions of years.

Maybe you don't care much for shellfish, but many carbonate-requiring animals, like krill and coral, make up the basis of all marine life. Krill lies at the bottom of the food chain, feeding wild salmon, halibut, and many other seafood favorites. Coral provides protection and food to 25% of all marine life, making them pretty critical to the world's supply of seafood.

How will this affect my favorite seafood restaurant?

As acidity levels in the ocean make it a harder place for shellfish to live, the fish that do survive on seafood will migrate further from people and closer to the poles, which ultimately means less fish for us. Fishing will become close to impossible and the fish we do get will be of bad health and low quality.

Not only does this threaten the jobs of fisherman, but everyone who's jobs depend on seafood—chefs, fish market owners, waiters, and more. For example, over the last decade, Oregon oyster farms have already experienced major issues caused by the change in the ocean's chemistry.

pork, seafood, meat, fish
Jocelyn Hsu

What's even more shocking is the chemical makeup and physiology of seafood are expected to change drastically as a result of the stress that this process places on them. As their homes are destroyed and their food sources diminish, their reduced health and growing struggle will be reflected in the quality of their taste. You can expect seafood to become not only scarce, but also less nutritious and less tasty.

Why do we need fish at all?

All in all, at this point, I can picutre my life without seafood to consume and maybe you can too. But, for most of the world, the disappearance of seafood would make life nearly impossible. Fish provides 20% of the protein that humans consume. Developing countries like Haiti, Senegal, and Madagascar, which are all populations that struggle to get get proper nutrients in their diets, depend on the ocean for sustenance.

Let's go back to coral. These complex marine animals are being killed not only by the rising acidity, but also by the rising atmospheric temperature caused by CO2 emissions. You can see the "bleaching" process below. Coral reefs create sturdy walls just off the coast, naturally preventing the water from invading, which physically protect us from rising sea levels.

We may not eat coral, but most if not all the seafood you eat relies on it as a home and a vital source of food. This makes coral reefs prime spots for fisheries all over the world. As coral reefs continue to be killed by the heat and CO2 we are producing, seafood will become more unattainable, causing people who rely on it to struggle like never before.  

While we can build artificial sea walls to somewhat control the rising sea level rise and irrigate crops affected by drought, unfortunately, we can not de-acidify the ocean at this point. 

With coral dying at shocking rates and the ocean acidity levels becoming dangerous to a lot of marine life, as long as we stay on land, it seems like a problem we don't have to deal with. However, the human population is dependent on the health of the ocean. Seafood feeds and sustains a large amount of the human population and coral reefs provide protection we simply cannot recreate.

mackerel, sardine, seafood, fish
Dea Uy

You personally may not be a fan of seafood, but if we don't slow CO2 emissions, a lot of the world will suffer. We will lose dishes that are essential to different cuisines including fresh sushi, comforting French bouillabaisse, or classic New England Lobster Rolls.  And, more importantly, much of the developing world will lose a fundamental source of nutrients. We simply cannot afford to let the ocean deteriorate at its current rate.

While it's impossible to reverse the damage that has already been done, we can work to slow down the process. By promoting the use of clean energy sources in your community, sticking to sustainable fish and meat sources, advocating for coral reef protection, and spreading the word you can help fight for a safe future for seafood.