Vulnerability and adaptation of US shellfisheries to ocean acidification

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online


Ocean acidification is a global, long-term problem whose ultimate solution requires carbon dioxide reduction at a scope and scale that will take decades to accomplish successfully. Until that is achieved, feasible and locally relevant adaptation and mitigation measures are needed. To help to prioritize societal responses to ocean acidification, we present a spatially explicit, multidisciplinary vulnerability analysis of coastal human communities in the United States. We focus our analysis on shelled mollusc harvests, which are likely to be harmed by ocean acidification. Our results highlight US regions most vulnerable to ocean acidification (and why), important knowledge and information gaps, and opportunities to adapt through local actions. The research illustrates the benefits of integrating natural and social sciences to identify actions and other opportunities while policy, stakeholders and scientists are still in relatively early stages of developing research plans and responses to ocean acidification.

At a glance


  1. Conceptual framework structuring the analysis of vulnerability to ocean acidification.
    Figure 1: Conceptual framework structuring the analysis of vulnerability to ocean acidification.

    Vulnerability analyses can focus on three key dimensions (exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity): (1) the extent and degree to which assets are exposed to the hazard of concern; (2) the sensitivity of people to the exposure; and (3) the adaptive capacity of people to prepare for and mitigate the exposure's impacts. These three dimensions together provide a relative view of a place's overall vulnerability. Adapted conceptual model components from refs 16,52,53,54,55.

  2. Overall vulnerability of places to ocean acidification.
    Figure 2: Overall vulnerability of places to ocean acidification.

    a–f, Scores of relative social vulnerability are shown on land (by coastal county cluster) and the type and degree of severity of OA and local amplifiers to which coastal marine bioregions are exposed, mapped by ocean bioregion: contiguous US West Coast (a), Northeast (b), Chesapeake Bay (c), the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Florida and Georgia (d), the Hawaii Islands (e), and Alaska (f). Social vulnerability (red tones) is represented with darker colours where it is relatively high. Exposure (purple tones) is indicated by the year at which sublethal thresholds for bivalve larvae are predicted to be reached, based on climate model projections using the RCP8.5 CO2 emission scenario27. Exposure to this global OA pressure is higher in regions reaching this threshold sooner. Additionally, the presence and degree of exposure to local amplifiers of OA are indicated for each bioregion: E(x/y) marks bioregions in which highly eutrophic estuaries are documented, x is the number of estuaries scored as high, and y is the total number evaluated in each bioregion56, locations of highly eutrophic estuaries are marked with a star; R(x/y) marks bioregions in which river water draining into the bioregion scored in the top quintile of an index designed to identify rivers with a very low saturation state and high annual discharge volume (calculated by authors from US Geological Survey data57), x is the number of rivers scoring in the top quintile of those evaluated, and y is the total number evaluated in this study. Approximate locations of river outflows of those rivers scoring in the top quintile are marked with a yellow triangle, and U marks bioregions where upwelling is very strong in at least part of the bioregion58.

  3. Sample of gaps in knowledge related to OA vulnerability, organized around components of the framework.
    Figure 3: Sample of gaps in knowledge related to OA vulnerability, organized around components of the framework.

    Different types of gaps are classified by the level of effort that is required to fill them (gaining knowledge is the most challenging, whereas data access tends to be the most straightforward). 212


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Author information


  1. Natural Resources Defense Council, 111 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California 94104, USA

    • Julia A. Ekstrom
  2. Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 West 20th Street, New York, New York 10011, USA

    • Lisa Suatoni
  3. Ocean Conservancy, 1300 19th Street NW, Washington DC 20036, USA

    • Sarah R. Cooley
  4. Nicholas Institute, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA

    • Linwood H. Pendleton
  5. Université de Brest, UMR M101, AMURE, OSU-IUEM, Brest, France

    • Linwood H. Pendleton
  6. College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

    • George G. Waldbusser
  7. ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

    • Josh E. Cinner
  8. Duke University, Duke Marine Laboratory, Beaufort, North Carolina 28516, USA

    • Jessica Ritter,
    • Dan Rittschof &
    • Carolyn Doherty
  9. Department of Marine Biology and Ecology, Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Florida 33149, USA

    • Chris Langdon
  10. NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Miami, Florida 33149, USA

    • Ruben van Hooidonk
  11. NOAA Ocean Acidification Program, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910, USA

    • Dwight Gledhill
  12. Northern Economics, Seattle, Washington 98107, USA

    • Katharine Wellman
  13. The Nature Conservancy, Santa Cruz, California 95060, USA

    • Michael W. Beck
  14. Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University, Amsterdam, 1081 HV, The Netherlands

    • Luke M. Brander
  15. Coral Reef Conservation Program, NOAA/National Ocean Service, Office for Coastal Management, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910, USA

    • Peter E. T. Edwards
  16. I.M. Systems Group Inc., Rockville, Maryland 20852, USA

    • Peter E. T. Edwards
  17. Conservation International, Arlington Virginia 22202, USA

    • Rosimeiry Portela
  18. Present address: Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, University of California at Davis, 1605 Tilia Street 100, Davis 95616, California, USA

    • Julia A. Ekstrom


All authors provided input into data analysis and research design, and participated in at least one SESYNC workshop; J.A.E. led the drafting of the text with main contributions from L.S., S.R.C., L.H.P., G.G.W. and J.E.C.; R.v.H. contributed projections of ocean acidification; L.H.P. contributed shelled mollusc diversity scores; J.A.E., L.S., S.R.C., J.R., L.H.P. and C.D. collected the data; J.A.E. carried out data analysis and mapping.

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