Gregoire launches effort against shellfish-killing ocean acidification

In 2007, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Tillamook, Ore., saw four straight months of zero shellfish-larvae production. By late 2008, everything was dead.

“We almost had to close,” said Alan Barton, production manager of Whiskey Creek. “We’d never seen anything like it.”

Barton, whose hatchery was one of the first in the Pacific Northwest to be hit with such changes, took water samples and discovered a dramatic increase in acidification levels of the seawater — a reduction in pH caused by increased carbon dioxide.

Rapidly rising ocean acidity levels have become a growing concern to the $270 million Washington state shellfish industry, which accounts for 85 percent of West Coast shellfish sales, serves as the country’s top producer of oysters, clams and mussels and indirectly employs around 3,200 people in the state, according to Gov. Chris Gregoire‘s office.

Gregoire signed an executive order Tuesday approving a series of 42 actions and 18 “key early actions” to reduce acidification, to be implemented by the Department of Ecology. The steps were recommended by a panel of experts she created last February.

In her proposed December budget, Gregoire plans to recommend $3.3 million be used to implement the plan, to come from existing taxes on hazardous substances and revenue of leases from state-owned aquatic lands.

Some first steps include:

– Advocating for the creation of a new University of Washington shellfish research center.

– Providing funding to hatcheries to monitor water conditions and make adjustments for increased acidity.

– Working with the University of Washington to study effects of ocean acidification and finding possible local, land-based sources of acidification.

– Requesting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin devising water quality criteria related to acidification.

– Encouraging policymakers to advocate for further carbon dioxide reduction strategies.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Gregoire said at a press conference Tuesday. “We’re going to lose a precious resource if we don’t take action.”

Panel members said the average acidity of the surface ocean has increased 30 percent since 1750. At current global carbon dioxide emission rates, they estimate acidity will increase up to 150 percent by the end of the 21st century. In Washington, coastal upwelling each summer brings in 30- to 50-year-old deep-ocean water with high carbon dioxide levels absorbed from the atmosphere around 1970. Even with drastic changes today, upwelling will still have an effect over the next several decades.

Barton has implemented aggressive water treatment and monitoring systems since discovering the source of Whiskey Creek’s problem. But he said using natural, untreated water could soon become something of the past.

“We’re producing about 70 percent of what we used to and yet working twice as hard,” he said.

Brad Warren, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership director, said he hopes the recommendations will encourage Washington businesses to think about ways to reduce carbon emissions, such as capturing and using the waste fuel that otherwise fumes off of garbage and manure, expanding the state’s solar panel industry and continuing to search for low-carbon alternatives wherever possible.

“Much of what needs to be done is good business,” he said. “I think we have a very good start here.”

Kirsten Johnson, Puget Sound Business Journal, 27 November 2012. Article.

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