Ocean acidification—the decrease in seawater pH due to rising CO2 concentrations—has been shown to lower survival in early life stages of fish and, as a consequence, the recruitment of populations including commercially important species. To date, ocean-acidification studies with fish larvae have focused on the direct physiological impacts of elevated CO2, but largely ignored the potential effects of ocean acidification on food web interactions. In an in situ mesocosm study on Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) larvae as top predators in a pelagic food web, we account for indirect CO2 effects on larval survival mediated by changes in food availability. The community was exposed to projected end-of-the-century CO2 conditions (~760 µatm pCO2) over a period of 113 days. In contrast with laboratory studies that reported a decrease in fish survival, the survival of the herring larvae in situ was significantly enhanced by 19 ± 2%. Analysis of the plankton community dynamics suggested that the herring larvae benefitted from a CO2-stimulated increase in primary production. Such indirect effects may counteract the possible direct negative effects of ocean acidification on the survival of fish early life stages. These findings emphasize the need to assess the food web effects of ocean acidification on fish larvae before we can predict even the sign of change in fish recruitment in a high-CO2 ocean.

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We thank the Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences, Kristineberg for providing the facilities to conduct this experiment. We acknowledge Yngve Elling Nicolaisen and the Marine Biological Station Drøbak for help obtaining the fish. We are grateful to the members of the ‘KOSMOS team’ for their enduring efforts to conduct this experiment. We are also thankful for the support of F. Dahlke and D. Storch, who provided us with the specifically designed ‘egg cages’. We thank the captain and crew of RV ALKOR for help with transporting and setting up the mesocosms (cruises AL406 and AL420). We acknowledge R. Erven, S. Schorr and D. Unverricht for designing the illustrations. The study was jointly funded by the Association of European Marine Biological Laboratories (http://www.assemblemarine.org; ASSEMBLE grant number 227799 to C.C. and M.S.), Swedish Academy of Sciences (to M.A.-M.) and German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (FKZ 03F06550) in the framework of BIOACID II (http://www.bioacid.de), and by the Leibniz Prize 2012 of the German Research Foundation (awarded to U.R.).

Author information


  1. GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Kiel, Germany

    • Michael Sswat
    • , Martina H. Stiasny
    • , Jan Taucher
    • , Lennart T. Bach
    • , Ulf Riebesell
    •  & Catriona Clemmesen
  2. Department of Economics, Christian-Albrechts-Universität, Kiel, Germany

    • Martina H. Stiasny
  3. Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Biological Institute Helgoland, Helgoland, Germany

    • Maria Algueró-Muñiz
  4. Department of Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway

    • Fredrik Jutfelt
  5. Department of Biology, Kristineberg Centre for Marine Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden

    • Fredrik Jutfelt


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M.S., U.R. and C.C. designed the experiment. M.S., M.H.S., F.J., L.T.B., M.A.-M., U.R. and C.C. performed the experiment. M.S. performed the survival analysis. M.A.-M. performed the zooplankton analysis. J.T. performed the particle analysis. L.T.B. performed the chlorophyll a analysis. M.S. and C.C. analysed the data. M.S., C.C. and U.R. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and implications, and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Catriona Clemmesen.

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