A 2010 Yale University poll found that 1 percent of Americans knew a lot about ocean acidification (OA), 6 percent knew something and the rest of us knew little or nothing at all. Had that poll focused exclusively on Washingtonians, I believe we would have scored much higher. We were the first state to understand that it was the arrival of acidic, or low-pH, seawater along our coast that devastated our shellfish industry starting in 2005. We were the first state to take action against OA. And importantly, this threat to our state’s economy, culture and way of life has generated strong reporting and statewide media coverage.
As late as 2009, disastrous production failures at some Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries signaled a shift in ocean chemistry with profound implications for Washington’s marine environment. This winter Island Scallops CEO Rob Saunders announced that his Vancouver Island Company had lost three years of scallop production worth $10 million, which caused the layoff of a third of his work force. In his 35 years farming shellfish, Saunders has never seen waters so acidified.
More than shellfish or Pacific Northwest livelihoods are at stake. OA affects far more than the 3,200 people employed by the $272 million shellfish industry in Washington. Unless we begin to significantly reduce global CO2 emissions — the primary cause of OA — other countries of the world, especially in South America, Africa and Asia, will experience the harm to marine resources and ecosystems that OA can cause.
In late March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington released a study of the last 14 years showing OA increasing with unexpected speed throughout the Pacific, especially in the tropics. Indeed, we are now seeing the fastest change in ocean acidity in the last 350 million years. When faced with such an awesome threat, some may despair or deny the facts. To our credit, Washingtonians rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
Former Gov. Christine Gregoire appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel to recommend ways the state might remediate, mitigate or adapt to OA. In November 2012, it released 42 recommendations. With Gov. Jay Inslee’s support, several have already been acted upon, including creating the Marine Resources Advisory Council, which I am honored to chair. The council’s overarching goal is to advance the implementation of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations.
Our specific mandates include sustaining a coordinated, multi-agency focus on OA; working with the new UW OA Center; recommending additional actions to the governor and Legislature; seeking funding for these recommendations; and educating the public about OA.
Fortunately, we have options for action to counter OA, at least in certain venues such as estuaries, which are nurseries for so much sea life. We can take steps now to prepare for the ocean our children and grandchildren will inherit. For example, a study of the Snohomish River estuary, released this year by Restoring America’s Estuaries, shows the large amount of CO2 that salt marshes can sequester as we restore and protect some of our most valuable coastal areas.
Research starting along the West Coast this spring will attempt to show the potential for estuarine seagrasses to “sweeten” the waters in limited areas and assist shellfish production. Some carbon-burying algae, such as kelp, clean coastal waters and are harvested commercially throughout Asia for a variety of products, primarily food.
Could we bring new industries to our state, producing jobs and other economic benefits while countering OA? Can we farm the sea to help feed a hungry world? How do we best prepare to survive more acidic waters and the rising sea level that will inundate large parts of our coastline in the coming decades? How can policymaking and the planning process better protect our marine resources of the future?
These are questions we will discuss at a free (including lunch), all-day workshop in Aberdeen on April 8. Please join us in learning about and planning to make the most of our changing coast.
The Ocean Acidification/Sea Level Rise Workshop will be held April 8 at the Aberdeen Rotary Log Pavilion, 1401 Sargent Blvd., Aberdeen. It is sponsored by the Surfrider Foundation and Global Ocean Health, a joint initiative of the National Fisheries Conservation Center and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. More info at http://surfriderwashingtoncoast.blogspot.com/p/ocean-acidification-works...
Martha Kongsgaard chairs the Marine Resources Advisory Council and the Puget Sound Leadership Council and is president of the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation.