Researchers are using seagrass from Newport Beach and other locations across the state to see if the salt-water flowering plant can fight ocean acidity, which they say could possibly curb the effects of climate change.
Ocean acidification is a global problem that occurs when seawater takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it difficult for some species — such as shelled organisms — to survive. Eelgrass absorbs the carbon through photosynthesis and removes it from the water, researchers say.
In Upper Newport Bay, researchers from UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz and Orange County Coastkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group, are studying whether natural and restored eelgrass beds can buffer carbon dioxide in the same way, and if an argument can be made that enhancing eelgrass habitats could reduce acidification, said Katie Nichols, the marine restoration director for Orange County Coastkeeper.
“With increased climate change, you’re getting increased acidic water,” Nichols said. “It’s just changing the ocean chemistry, basically.”
Late last month, the research team placed four sensors in and around a natural eelgrass bed near the Back Bay Science Center to help determine if the water chemistry is different, potentially better or more hospitable for organisms inside the eelgrass beds.
When the sensors are retrieved later this month, they will provide readings on pH and oxygen levels and the water temperature.
“So if you’re an animal that’s sensitive to ocean acidification, do you benefit from living in or nearby a seagrass bed?” said Melissa Ward, an ecology doctoral student at Davis and San Diego State.
Sensors have also been placed along the coast near Santa Cruz, Bodega Harbor and Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay.
If the idea that eelgrass can fight acidification pans out, the next step would be to try to restore more seagrass beds — California has lost 90 percent of its seagrass — and maintain the current ones, Ward said.
The plants come with many ecological benefits, improving water quality, stabilizing sediment and acting as a foundation species for lobsters, birds and commercial fish, Ward said.
“We’re just seeing if we can tack on the benefits of water chemistry improvement by seagrasses,” she said, adding that mooring lines and docks have depleted eelgrass across California.
The researchers’ findings will be of interest to the oyster industry, since oysters and the plants often live in the same areas,…