Working on the water in our corner of Washington state is a way of life. Every year, shellfish farmers along the coastlines we represent collect and harvest the seafood that ends up on dinner plates and store shelves across America and around the world. There are also the commercial and recreational fishermen who have sustained jobs for generations. Fishermen and shellfish growers are woven into the fabric of our economy. It’s safe to say that Washington state is the nation’s seafood breadbasket.
All that demand for seafood caught in our rich waters creates jobs for our communities. But the livelihoods of these workers — from boats to docks to processing plants to restaurants — face a new threat that comes from the ocean itself. Lately we’ve been hearing from folks in our area about how ocean acidification is changing the very chemistry of the Pacific and damaging our seafood industry in the process.
This is a problem that must be confronted head on. Washington state’s fishing industry supports more than 67,000 jobs and generated over $8 billion in seafood sales in 2011. The state also leads the nation in producing farmed clams, oysters, and mussels with much of that production coming from our regions. These growers in Washington state contribute more than $250 million to the economy and support more than 3,200 jobs. It’s clear that any harm acidification causes to the seafood we catch puts a big dent in our economy.
Recently, we’ve seen why this is such a threat and how it comes down to the acidity in water (or pH). As the pH in a body of water like the Pacific Ocean lowers, the level of acidity rises. Acidic water makes it harder to sustain the nutrients that help organisms up and down the food chain grow.
Take, for example, the plight of pteropods. These tiny sea butterflies are actually a large part of the diet for salmon and other fish important to Washington state. Unfortunately, those lower pH levels cut pteropods off from the materials they need to grow strong shells. Now, scientists are finding that these shells are dissolving, making it harder for pteropods to survive. Even more worrisome, the shells of shellfish have the same components as pteropods.
Along these same lines, scientists have discovered that low pH creates a corrosive environment for baby oysters — contributing to some of the die offs we’ve seen in recent years. The Seattle Times has highlighted how family-owned businesses like the Goose Point Oyster Co. are concerned about the future of oysters in our region.
With these high stakes, we joined together to take action to help our region. This is an issue that cuts across party lines: it’s about making sure we help preserve and protect quality jobs that fuel economic growth. We introduced the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act, a proposal to encourage breakthrough solutions to the acidification problem.
Our approach is modeled after the XPRIZE, a non-profit organization that creates public competitions that ask people to try and find solutions to problems that impact us all. In turn, that generates increased investment, and in the Ansari XPRIZE case, launched an entire industry of personal space flight.
Why prizes? Testimony by representatives from XPRIZE explained it best. A $5 million research grant will generally yield $5 million of research. In contrast, a $5 million research prize competition can yield four to ten times leverage. In other words, private industry and university research will combine to do $20 million to $40 million of research.
So our legislation calls on federal agencies to leverage existing funds by creating prize competitions that will increase our ability to manage, research, and monitor ocean acidification and its impacts. In a time of tighter budgets, we need to make sure that every dollar goes farther, and we think these competitions are an innovative way to do that and help solve the acidification problem. Most importantly, it won’t take any new dimes out of taxpayer pockets. But it will bolster ongoing research efforts.
We hope others join us in our efforts to minimize any harm acidification could cause. Now is the time to ensure that future generations are able to make a living in Washington state off healthy waters.
Congressman Derek Kilmer is a Democrat representing Washington’s Sixth District. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler represents the state’s Third District. The two represent voters in portions of the Twin Harbors.