Expert panel to address ocean acidification

Increasing acidity of seawater in Hood Canal and along the Washington Coast may be killing off the larval form of shellfish like nowhere else in the world, according to researchers studying the problem.

Such findings — with alarming implications for the shellfish industry — were the impetus for Gov. Chris Gregoire to convene a blue-ribbon panel of 25 scientists, shellfish growers and political leaders, who will examine the latest studies and make recommendations by Oct. 1.

The panel, headed by Bill Ruckelshaus and Jay Manning, was scheduled to hold its first meeting in Seattle on Friday. The agenda includes a review of the latest scientific findings and approval of a schedule for six upcoming meetings. This panel is the first in the United States to focus on regional problems related to ocean acidification, officials say.

“Washington state has a large stake in addressing ocean acidification,” Gregoire said in a prepared statement announcing the panel’s creation. “Our shellfish industry employs thousands of people and brings in millions of dollars to our state on an annual basis.

“Continued success depends on healthy ocean water,” she said. “Bill Ruckelshaus, Jay Manning and the other panel members will help find ways to respond to ocean acidification to protect both our economy and our natural resources, and I thank them for their willingness to lead this critical effort.”

Ocean acidification is occurring worldwide as a result of increasing levels of carbon dioxide, which becomes absorbed into seawater to form carbonic acid. But Washington state has been found to be particularly vulnerable, both along the coast and within Puget Sound.

Waters along the Washington Coast are known for their upwelling, which brings corrosive water up from the depths after being out of contact with the atmosphere for a very long time. Such water is characterized by high levels of carbon dioxide and low levels of oxygen.

Upwelling may also be a factor for portions of Puget Sound, especially Hood Canal. But another factor is the delivery of nitrogen and organic material from rivers and streams, which play a role in the chemical balance. Some of the highest readings of seawater acidity anywhere in the world have been recorded in Hood Canal.

Higher acidity has been linked to a failure of some shellfish larvae to attach and form shells, dooming them to death before they look anything like their adult parents. Other marine creatures may appear normal but contain various defects, such as the reduced muscle growth in brittle stars.

Increasing acidity has potentially “scary ramifications” for this state, said Manning, a Kitsap County native who recently served as Gregoire’s chief of staff and was previously director of the Washington Department of Ecology.

“I think it is great that Washington state is on the cutting edge of this issue,” Manning said. “I think we will come up with a set of actions that will make a difference.”

All ideas will be on the table, said Ruckelshaus, who served as the first chairman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which oversees efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound. The panel may even have ideas that reach well beyond this region, he said.

“Washington state cannot make policies for the nation or the world,” Ruckelshaus said, yet he expects the panel to discuss various actions and studies to squarely face the problem.

Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have contributed to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and governments throughout the world are wrestling with ways to address the problem.

Research completed the past few years is already helping shellfish growers adapt, said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms, which has sustained high mortalities at its oyster hatchery on Quilcene Bay in Hood Canal.

It turns out that strong north winds bring corrosive waters to the surface. In response, hatchery workers now watch the pH levels carefully to avoid taking in corrosive waters from the bay. Fortunately, the past two years has seen mostly gentle, southerly winds, Dewey said, so hatchery and natural production have both benefitted. Dewey is a member of the blue-ribbon panel.

Whiskey Creek Oyster Hatchery on the Oregon Coast has had a harder time avoiding corrosive water, he said, but managers there are doing their best to dodge it. One strategy is to fill the oyster tanks in the afternoon after phytoplankton have taken up carbon dioxide in the presence of sunlight, thus reducing the acidity.

Manning said he doesn’t want to presuppose any projects, but some people have discussed planting kelp, eelgrass and other seaweeds to help absorb carbon dioxide in Puget Sound.

While the effects of ocean acidity on commercial shellfish farms are a major economic concern, the panel is equally aware of threats to the entire ecosystem, Manning said.

“We will definitely be looking at the economic effects, the job impacts,” he said, “but we will not limit ourselves to that. We will be looking at the larger ecological impacts as well.”

Betsy Peabody, director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, has been engaged in studies to monitor acidity levels in Dabob Bay in Hood Canal and Totten Inlet in South Puget Sound. It turns out that different areas have different “drivers” for increased acidity.

Upwelling appears to be the main driver for Dabob Bay, while increased nutrients, such as nitrogen, have the greatest influence on Totten Inlet. Since nutrients come from fertilizers, septic systems and stormwater, human intervention may make a difference.

Puget Sound Restoration Fund has taken on major projects to restore native Olympic oysters and pinto abalone to the inland waterways. If the larvae are affected by increased acidity, restoration could be an increasing uphill battle.

“For Olympia oysters, the success of our rebuilding efforts will depend on a regular recruitment (of larvae),” said Peabody, another member of the blue-ribbon panel. “We need these guys to be able to form their shells.”

In natural conditions, Olympia oyster grow densely, creating habitat for shrimp, crabs and salmon. Without healthy shellfish populations, she said, the entire food web — and the recovery of Puget Sound — could be in jeopardy.

Join a discussion about all things water-related at Watching Our Water Ways,, a blog at

Christopher Dunagan, Kitsap Sun, 29 March 2012. Article.

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