Marine council hears about acidification

Decisions made now at the state and local level can affect the threat of climate change to the Washington coast over the next century, a senior research scientist with the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory told a panel meeting in Aberdeen Wednesday on issues impacting the ocean.

“When we get to coastal environments, we have added problems that we have to consider as well,” said Dr. Richard Feely of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration lab in Seattle.

It all depends on “how we handle C02 emissions in the future,” Feely added.

“If we just forget about this and let things go the direction that they are headed, then we will continue to see CO2 levels in the atmosphere rise way up in this century and even higher in the next century,” he said.

Feely was addressing the Washington Coastal Marine Advisory Council at the Port of Grays Harbor about studies he’s been involved in for several of NOAA’s national research programs. He has published numerous papers on ocean acidification and is currently a member of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification.

The panel, he said, intends to release a comprehensive report on ocean acidification in late November, along with measures to deal with the problem. CO2 changes chemically when mixed with seawater and forms carbonic acid, which then affects the pH level, creating acidic levels.

“The idea was to bring together the best science with best policy-makers with the best educators and really try to address the overall problem,” Feely said of the governor’s panel.

The Marine Advisory Council is a separate and still-developing group that on Wednesday worked on drafting a mission statement and heard a briefing on the ongoing efforts to complete comprehensive marine spatial planning, which will “better coordinate decision-making for coastal and ocean activities and environments.”

The planning process is intended to help reduce conflicts among ocean uses. It will focus on subjects such as maritime shipping, economic development, fishing, aquaculture and recreation and consider those as well as potential environmental impacts. The council heard a report on a 2013-2015 budget request from the state Department of Natural Resources that will ask the Legislature for $2 million for mapping activities, $1 million for ecological assessments, $800,000 for data tools and $400,000 to enhance public involvment in the planning process.

The council includes representatives from affected counties, such as Grays Harbor and Pacific, and from the shellfish, crabbing and fishing industries locally, as well as others, such as PUD General Manger Rick Lovely, who was attending his first council meeting since being added to the group as an energy representative.

In addition to sounding the alarm over CO2 emissions and acidification levels off the Washington coast as well as inland in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, Feely gave the council a sense of how the research can help frame its mission in trying to lessen the impacts.

Acidification occurs as oceans accumulate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, from polluted runoff and other sources. When saltwater becomes acidic, it harms the shell-making ability of oysters, clams, scallops and mussels, and poses a threat to other marine life as well.

“We’re beginning to see this as a regular part of our cycle,” he said of ever-encroaching levels of corrosive water.

Feely acknowledged there may be “some winners and some losers” when looking at studies of how the changing ocean conditions affect organisms that have been studied so far.

“We are looking at a small number of species that we have done detailed studies on and trying to work very hard on that,” he said. “All the information is coming in now. We do know that, on average, if you take all the studies that have been done so far, about 50 percent of the organisms showed a negative impact; 25 percent showed no impact, and 25 percent of the organisms showed a positive impact. But that suggests that there would be an ecosystem shift of some major point.”

Humans depend on the biodiversity of the ocean to have successful ecosystems, Feely said. The state leads the nation in producing farmed clams, oysters and mussels, valued at more than $270 million a year.

“We depend on shellfish quite a bit, so we should be worried about whether or not our primary seafood industry would be impacted,” Feely said. “… We need to develop the science to say this is how we’re going to defend against this. That’s the science that hasn’t been done yet. That’s why we have to work so closely.”

The Marine Advisory Council advises the State Ocean Caucus, an inter-agency team, on ocean policy and management issues along Washington’s Pacific Coast.