U.S. senators Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, are preparing legislation calling for a national strategy to combat ocean acidification.
And well they should: The two states they represent have much at stake in this attempt to get a grip on a devastating environmental problem.
As early as 2005, oyster larvae in the marine waters of the Pacific Northwest began experiencing a massive die-off. Two years ago scientists conclusively linked it to decreasing pH levels in ocean water caused by mass loading of carbon dioxide from power plants, cars and other human sources. About 25 percent of all carbon dioxide released into the air settles in the ocean.
As the water grows more acidic and corrosive, some marine species, including oysters and red king crab, have a life and death struggle on their hands, trying to pull enough minerals out of the water to grow shells. The minerals they need are depleted by ocean acidification.
There are fears in Alaska that the more than $100 million king crab fishery could collapse as baby crab can’t pull enough carbonate ions out of the water to build their exoskeletons.
Here in Washington State, much of the $270 million shellfish industry is at risk.
The legislation Cantwell and Begich champion would make ocean acidification monitoring a national priority. It would provide funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to expand a network of high-tech buoys and sensors to monitor ocean conditions and determine what regions of the oceans, and what fisheries, are at most risk.
Some of the buoys already deployed under legislation approved by Congress in 2010 are helping the oyster industry monitor the water chemistry of the ocean water entering their Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries. The data gives them advance warning of corrosive water so they know when to shut off water intake valves or when to alter the water chemistry to help the oyster larvae survive.
“We are one of the first industries in the world to be affected by ocean acidification,” noted Bill Dewey of the Mason County-based Taylor Shellfish. He likened putting one of these Integrated Ocean Observing System buoys in the water to putting headlights on a car.
The legislation would require NOAA to assess what fisheries and fish habitats are most at risk from ocean acidification so sensors can be deployed where they are needed the most.
According to NOAA, Washington fisheries generate $1.7 billion a year, and sustain 42,000 jobs. Nationally, the economic value of commercial fishing amounts to $70 billion and 1 million jobs.
Congress should not hesitate to begin work in earnest on a national ocean acidification strategy.
Of course, monitoring and research alone is not a strong enough response. Scientists say the CO2 already in the oceans is enough to alter water chemistry for decades to come. Significant reductions in greenhouse gases from human activity must be an even larger part of the action plan to save entire marine ecosystems from collapse.
The economic impacts of ocean acidification are enormous. Even more important, it is a stark reminder that our over-reliance on fossil fuels is destroying the natural world that sustains us.