Sea Change: Action needed on ocean acidification


As part of the 2012 Marne Resource Committee (MRC) Coastal Summit, four blue ribbon panel members will present findings and recommendations to the public on Dec. 8 at the Cranberry Museum in Long Beach.

In 2005, oyster hatcheries in Washington and Oregon noticed their larvae were dying in large numbers. Alarmed at the possibility of a virus, they took extensive and expensive anti-bacterial measures, but to no avail. By 2007, the hatcheries were recording mortalities of up to 80 percent. The oyster seed business was on the brink of collapse and nobody knew why.

A year later, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Oregon State University identified ocean acidification as the culprit. Once the hatcheries were monitoring their water and taking counter-measures, production began to rebound. Taylor Shellfish Farms had its best year ever in 2011. But adaptation is a temporary fix; we musttackle the root cause.

Around the world, 70 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) are released into the air every day mainly through burning coal, oil, and natural gas. More than a quarter of this CO 2 is absorbed by the oceans, where it forms carbonic acid.

This rapidly changing chemistry endangers the base of the sea’s ecology, the food web, and its prime nurseries, coral reefs and estuaries. Shellfish, and other species needing calcium carbonate to build their shells or skeletons, are especially vulnerable.

Acidification is a looming threat to the environment, economies, and food supply around the world.

Acidification affects jobs and livelihoods throughout the Northwest, especially in Washington, which produces 85 percent of the West Coast’s shellfish. The industry directly or indirectly employs 3,200 people in our state and brings more than $270 million to our economy. Shellfish farming is the largest employer in Pacific County and the second largest employer in Mason County, with a combined annual payroll of $27 million.

But not only oysters are in peril. Since acidification affects many marine species, Washington’s seafood industry, which generates an estimated 42,000 jobs and $1.7 billion annually, is potentially at risk.

To confront the threat of acidification, last February Governor Christine Gregoire appointed a 28-member blue ribbon panel to identify actions to protect the state’s marine resources. Washington became the nation’s first state to convene such a group.

Both of us had the honor and responsibility of serving on the panel. Our report, released November 27, contains 42 recommendations covering six areas:

• Addressing the root cause of acidification by reducing CO2 emissions.

• Reducing local land-based pollutants that worsen acidification.

• Helping our shellfish industry and marine ecosystems adapt to ocean acidification.

• Continuing both research on acidification and monitoring of our state’s waters.

• Engaging in public education and outreach on a problem few people know about.

• Sustaining our focus on acidification.

When asked what a small state like Washington could do about the huge ocean

acidification problem, Governor Gregoire replied with a single word: “Lead.” To do so, the governor said she will budget $3.3 million for the effort in the 2013-15 biennium and she signed an executive order urging state agencies to cooperate in implementing the panel’s recommendations. (Learn more about acidification and read the report at: http:/

/www.ecy.wa.gov/water/marine/oceanacidification.html.)

Jane Lubechenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, praised Washington for “seizing this issue and really wrestling with what can be done,” saying, “Nowhere on the planet is a local response more needed than here in Washington.”

Washington is clearly on the frontlines of a global ocean health problem. Our dependen ce on shellfish—as a regional industry, a major export, a necessary component of clean water, and a significant part of our cultural heritage—means we cannot ignore this issue. And we can’t wait for others to act first. We need to do what we can today in our state, while pushing for action beyond our state’s borders.

Everyone can learn about ocean acidification and speak to others about the problem. As part of the 2012 Marine Resource Committee (MRC) Coastal Summit, four blue ribbon panel members will present findings and recommendations to the public on December 8 at the Cranberry Museum in Long Beach. The Pacific County MRC will provide free box lunches to those who register online at http://pacificcountymrc.com/coastal-mrc-summit-science-conference/. Please join us.

Brian Blake is chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources and represents the 19th Legislative District, which includes all of Wahkiakum and Pacific counties, and parts of Grays Harbor, Cowlitz, and Lewis counties.

Bill Dewey is Public Policy and Communications Director for Taylor Shellfish Farms, North America’s largest producer of farmed shellfish.