Acidity in oceans: bad trip for Washington’s economy

The buildup of acid levels in oceans,  a consequence of human-caused climate change, threatens to eat away at an important corner of Washington’s economy, according to the report of a state blue-ribbon panel on ocean acidification released on Tuesday.

“Our state should care about this because contact with corrosive water directly effects our shellfish industry . . . We simply cannot sit idly by when this happens,” said William Ruckelshaus, former U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator and co-chair of the panel.

Shellfish aquaculture is a $270 million business and directly and indirectly employs 3,000 people in the Evergreen State. Annual sales of farmed shellfish from Washington make up 85 percent of U.S. West Coast sales (including Alaska).

The task force called on Washington to think globally — pressing with partners abroad and at home for “A comprehensive strategy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — and act locally by acting to cut down agricultural chemicals, storm-water and waste-water runoffs going into the state’s marine waters.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who created the task force, signed an executive order directing the Department of Ecology to coordinate recommendations from the panel, and announced creation of a new center for ocean acidification at the University of Washington.

A “global reduction in emissions from carbon fuels” is needed, Gregoire argued Tuesday, adding:  “It is time to take action . . . Lets lead the world in addressing this challenge.”

But Gregoire refused to take a stand on a proposed project that will serve to maintain or increase carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere — expansion of ports at Cherry Point and Longview that would export millions of tons of coal to fuel China’s aging coal-burning power plants.  China recently passed the U.S. as the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse bases.

The governor pointed to “laws and procedures” now underway to evaluate the environmental impact of coal ports and mile-long coal trains.  “If I were to come out and make my position known, it would tank the process and this would end up in court,” said Gregoire.

The governor’s task force delivered a series of blunt facts, including:

–About one quarter of human-generated emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (e.g. coal and oil) get absorbed by the oceans.  Through a series of chemical reactions, carbon dioxide gas has an acidifying effect when dissolved in seawater.

–As a result, the average acidity (as measured by the hydrogen ion concentration) of the surface of oceans has increased about 30 percent since 1750.

–The current rate of acidification is nearly 10 times faster than any time in the past 50 million years, overwhelming the ocean’s capacity to restore its chemistry.  At the current rate of global carbon dioxide emissions, the average acidity of the oceans’ surface is expected to increase by 100 to 150 percent over pre-industrial levels during this century.

“The rapid pace of change gives marine organisms, marine ecosystems and humans less time to adapt, evolve or otherwise adjust to the changing circumstances,” said the task force report.

As an example, acid buildup in oceans “leads to conditions that are chemically corrosive for shellfish and other calcifiers,” the report stated.

Retiring Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., noted local causes as well.  “We have contributions from storm water, from nutrients, from septic tanks — all of which we have seen on Hood Canal,” Dicks said.  The congressman owns a home on Hood Canal, and has worked to improve water conditions at what’s know as the the “Fishhook” at the south end of the canal.

Dicks said he is baffled at the attitude toward climate change of some colleagues in Congress.  “Some people are still in denial, saying that nothing is going on,” he said.  “That is the most amazing thing.  This has to be a major issue in the second term of the Obama administration.”

A visit to Taylor Shellfish Co. oyster beds on Hood Canal alerted Gregoire to the acidification buildup.  The company has experienced major difficulties with its shellfish hatcheries.  As the task force report noted, “Shellfish larvae and juveniles are especially vulnerable.”

Taylor Shellfish operates a well-known oyster bed on Samish Bay near the south end of Chuckanut Drive, about 70 miles north of Bellingham.  The main Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad tracks run along the water just inland from the oyster beds.

If Cherry Point becomes an export terminal, 150-car-long coal trains will roll by the oyster beds, fueling the carbon economy that threatens Washington’s aquaculture economy famous for its oysters, mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp and crab.

Seattle pi, 27 November 2012. Article.

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