02/25/2014 11:58 EST | Updated 04/27/2014 05:59 EDT

Acidic ocean deadly for Vancouver Island scallop industry

The deteriorating health of B.C.'s oceans is impacting not only the province's marine life, but also its economy.

Millions of shellfish are dying off before they can be harvested at Island Scallops, near Parksville, B.C., due to increased acidity levels in the ocean.

One-third of the workforce at Island Scallops — 20 people — are being laid off because the business has lost more than 10 million scallops before they were able to reach maturity since 2009.

"It's obviously kicked our feet out from underneath us," said CEO Rob Saunders.

He said low pH levels in the water appear to be the root of the problem.

As atmospheric carbon is absorbed into the ocean, it becomes more acidic. This makes it more difficult for the shellfish to actually form shells, compromising their immune systems.

Vancouver Island University's Helen Gurney-Smith said the problem is global, but it is especially acute in B.C.

More research is urgently needed to keep the shellfish industry afloat, she said.

"It could be that some species are better adapted to ocean acidification," she said.

The company is launching a research program with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans where researchers will try to determine if acidification is to blame or if other factors are at play.