Chemistry is not always easy to learn or communicate about, but it is at the very root of the problem our oceans face today. The chemistry of the world's oceans and inland marine waters, such as Puget Sound, is changing significantly and with unprecedented speed. The most serious of these radical changes is ocean acidification. We must pay attention to this problem and act to reduce the threat it poses.
The ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was before the industrial revolution began 250 years ago. If current trends continue, the increase may reach 100 percent by mid-century. The primary cause is carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels - coal, gas, and oil. The oceans absorb roughly 30 percent of those emissions from the atmosphere. When carbon dioxide mixes with seawater, it forms carbonic acid, and the chemical building blocks needed for the shells or skeletons of species such as mollusks, crustaceans and corals (called calcifiers) are reduced, making it difficult for these creatures to develop.
For years, scientists thought that the carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans was a benefit to all because it reduced the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, lessening the effects of global warming. Only within the last decade have the true costs of this "benefit" been recognized and documented.
While this is clearly a global issue, the effects of acidification are being felt first here in Washington because of the way the deep corrosive waters of the Pacific Ocean upwell and surface off our coast. Between 2005 and 2009, up to 80 percent of the oyster larvae in some Pacific Northwest hatcheries were killed by these corrosive waters. The oyster seed industry was on the verge of collapse.
Once the problem was identified and understood, the shellfish industry took action to change practices and adapt, at least temporarily, to the circumstances. But what happened to those larvae should be a wake-up call to all of us that more than oysters are at risk. Roughly a third of all of the organisms in Puget Sound are calcifiers, including such foundations of the marine food web as plankton. Any disruptions at the bottom of the food chain ripple upwards, affecting such commercially important species as salmon.
In 2012, then-Gov. Gregoire created the 28-member Washington State Panel on Ocean Acidification, bringing scientists, policymakers and various leaders together to determine how to address this problem. The panel was co-chaired by Bill Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Jay Manning, former director of the Washington Department of Ecology. Last November the panel released its 42 recommendations.
The panel recognized that we can do little here in Washington to directly reduce the 70 million tons of carbon dioxide that the world pumps into the atmosphere every day. But we can be a model for educating ourselves and others about acidification. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, we can warn the world of the impending danger. We can make our own environment as resilient as possible to its effects and demonstrate the many ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We can reduce local, land-based contributors to acidification, such as runoff containing nitrogen and phosphorus. We can invest in monitoring and researching the causes and effects of acidification and devising effective counter-measures to it.
The science of ocean acidification and some of the panel's recommendations will be discussed at a seminar from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 28, at the Port of Bellingham Ferry Terminal's Dome Room, 355 Harris Ave. Brady Olson of the Western Washington University's Shannon Point Marine Center; Betsy Peabody, founder of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund; and Brad Warren, director of the Global Ocean Health Program, will make presentations. Peabody and Warren served on the ocean acidification panel.
We hope many of you will be able to join us. It is essential for us to learn about ocean acidification and then move from knowledge to action. The fate of our marine waters and the way of life and livelihoods that depend upon them hang in the balance. Come do your part.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Ginny Broadhurst is the executive director of the Northwest Straits Commission and Bill Dewey is communications and policy director at Taylor Shellfish Farms. Learn more about the Washington State Panel on Ocean Acidification and its findings and recommendations at http://www.ecy.wa.gov/water/marine/oceanacidification.html.