Tackling an ocean menace

The challenge of galvanizing support for cleaning Puget Sound is undercut by the illusion of beauty. Like a tossed sheet, the waves of Port Gardner Bay obscure what lies below. And the corrosive effects of ocean acidification are all but invisible, except for the billions of dying oyster larvae at hatcheries around the Sound.

Researchers determined that the Northwest die-off that began in 2005 was triggered by low-pH seawater along the West Coast. This ocean acidification, caused largely by fossil fuels and the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is strafing the state’s marine economy. It’s a complex, colossal mess, unseen unless you own an oyster farm or have a thing for pH testing paper.

Thanks to the work of a state panel co-chaired by Bill Ruckelshaus and Jay Manning, a few regional fixes are now on the table (Forgive the governor for calling it a “blue-ribbon panel.” The overuse of that term makes it tough to distinguish the real from the cosmetic.) The panel’s recommendations are area-specific and provide a more manageable blueprint than getting the world to abruptly stop using gas and coal.

Adapting and remediating for ocean acidification is one key strategy — essentially damage management. Suggestions include developing commercial-scale hatchery designs and water-treatment methods to safeguard larvae along with planting additional vegetation in upland areas.

Other components include reducing local, land-based contributors such as organic carbon and nutrient runoff. That will require some planning changes and perhaps a tweak to the holy grail of land use, the Growth Management Act (GMA.) The GMA limits sewage-system infrastructure in rural areas adjacent to water even though septic systems often contribute to acidification.

Investigating and monitoring causes and effects are critical. On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed an executive order that includes directing the Department of Ecology to work with the University of Washington to conduct technical analysis on the acidification fallout and how to tackle it.

Washington is now the first state to declare war on ocean acidification. Northwesterners excel at engineering, from Dreamliners to floating bridges, but the magnitude of seawater acidification is a whale. A piecemeal approach, ideally duplicated by Oregon, California and British Columbia, is a first step.

Rep. Norma Smith, Republican of Clinton who served on the panel, expressed some reservations. “We must continue to be cognizant of potential added costs and burdens imposed on our farmers, small-business owners, local governments and our communities,” Smith said in a statement.

Smith’s concerns are analogous to the costs associated with salmon restoration as well. Washingtonians will pay now or pay later, as the West Coast recalibrates for a (literal) sea change.

Herald Net, 28 November 2012. Article.

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