Carbon emissions and wastewater are making the ocean more acidic, an accelerating chemical reaction that could threaten the ability of young scallops, oysters and lobsters to survive to maturity, according to a report published by the Massachusetts legislature on Tuesday.

A coalition of scientists, conservationists and representatives from the seafood industry found that a third of mollusks could be wiped out within 80 years if ocean waters continue to acidify at current rates. The effect on lobsters and crabs is less clear, though they are suspected to be more resilient.

“We’re running out of time before the consequences of ocean acidification become truly catastrophic,” said State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, a Democrat from Cape Cod who co-founded the coalition.

The group’s 84-page report says that oceans have been acidifying since the industrial revolution by soaking up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When the gas dissolves, it triggers a chain reaction that raises acidity and saps the ocean of carbonate ions that shellfish use to grow their shells, making them more vulnerable to predators and bruising waves.

It’s hardly the first time scientists have predicted doom for New England’s seafood industry, but the report found rising ocean acidity is threatening scallops, the very species that fishermen in New Bedford and other nearby ports turned to to survive an earlier ecological catastrophe: the overfishing of cod. 

Typically served outside of their shell, with slimy parts like the frill and gutsack removed before the gamey center hits the frying pan, scallops now account for more than 80 percent of seafood sales in New Bedford, America’s largest fishing port.

But as the ocean grows more acidic, scallop fishermen working today could see significant portions of their catch diminished before they retire.

“These changes are happening now,” said Kelly Kryc, an ocean conservationist with the New England Aquarium who worked on the report. “If you are on the west coast of the United States, some of their industry has experienced catastrophic die-offs.”

The issue is even more urgent for the lobstermen and oyster farmers who earn their living closer to shore. Pollution from lawns, septic systems and urban sewers regularly seeps into the ocean, causing algal blooms that spike ocean acidity even faster than dissolving carbon dioxide.

Seth Garfield grows oysters on the shore of Buzzard’s Bay, where he’s started to notice irregularities in his catch that he suspects are related to acidification.

“Each farmer has their own individual experience, including mine out on Cuttyhunk island,” he said. “At a certain time of the year, we have very fragile, thin shells.”

State Sen. Julian Cyr, a Democrat from Cape Cod, said aquaculturists like Garfield have created a growth industry for young workers in a region where many are struggling to keep up with the increased cost of living.

Cyr and Fernandes have drafted a bill that would expand systems for measuring ocean acidification in Massachusetts, in the hopes that businessmen like Garfield can use the data to steer their hatcheries free of danger while scientists study the effects of ocean acidification in greater depth.

If the bill passes, Massachusetts would join several other states who actively monitor acidification along their coasts, including Washington, California and Maine.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at