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Severe tissue damage in Atlantic cod larvae under increasing ocean acidification


Ocean acidification, caused by increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (refs 1, 2, 3), is one of the most critical anthropogenicthreats to marine life. Changes in seawater carbonate chemistry have the potential to disturb calcification, acid–base regulation, blood circulation and respiration, as well as the nervous system of marine organisms, leading to long-term effects such as reduced growth rates and reproduction4,5. In teleost fishes, early life-history stages are particularly vulnerable as they lack specialized internal pH regulatory mechanisms6,7. So far, impacts of relevant CO2 concentrations on larval fish have been found in behaviour8,9 and otolith size10,11, mainly in tropical, non-commercial species. Here we show detrimental effects of ocean acidification on the development of a mass-spawning fish species of high commercial importance. We reared Atlantic cod larvae at three levels of CO2, (1) present day, (2) end of next century and (3) an extreme, coastal upwelling scenario, in a long-term ( months) mesocosm experiment. Exposure to CO2 resulted in severe to lethal tissue damage in many internal organs, with the degree of damage increasing with CO2 concentration. As larval survival is the bottleneck to recruitment, ocean acidification has the potential to act as an additional source of natural mortality, affecting populations of already exploited fish stocks.

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Figure 1: Larval growth in dry weight over the entire experimental period.
Figure 2: Lipid content of larval cod for the last three sampling intervals.
Figure 3: Tissue damage from histological sections in larvae under increased pCO2.
Figure 4: Quantification of degree of damage in various organs with increasing pCO2.
Figure 5: Quantification of total damage to larvae at increasing pCO2.


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Funding was provided through the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) ‘European Project on Ocean Acidification’ (EPOCA, grant agreement N211384), the European Marie Curie Initial Training Network ‘Calcification of Marine Organisms’ (CalMarO) and the project by German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) ‘Biological Impacts of Ocean ACIDification’ (BIOACID). The experiments were conducted at the Norwegian National Mesocosm Centre, Espegrend, in cooperation with the University of Bergen. The authors are grateful to R. Bellerby and his lab for assistance with the carbonate chemistry and to H. Otteraa, V. Lokøy, F. Midtøy and C. Eizaguirre for various support.

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A.Y.F., R.M., A.J.G., A.F., U.P. and C.C. designed the experiment; A.Y.F., R.M., A.J.G., A.F. and C.C. performed the experiment; D.L. performed the histological analysis and wrote the section on that topic; A.M.M. performed the lipid analysis; A.Y.F, C.C. and T.B.H.R. analysed data; A.Y.F. and T.B.H.R. wrote the main paper; All authors discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

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Correspondence to Andrea Y. Frommel.

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Frommel, A., Maneja, R., Lowe, D. et al. Severe tissue damage in Atlantic cod larvae under increasing ocean acidification. Nature Clim Change 2, 42–46 (2012).

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