WWU research contributes to state’s ocean acidification fight

By Steve Suklin and Kevin Ranker – courtesy to the Bellingham Herald

When Gov. Chris Gregoire signed an executive order on Nov. 27 to address the growing threat of ocean acidification, she took a bold move to place the state of Washington at the forefront of an issue that will affect not only Washingtonians but potentially all of the world’s citizens in the years to come.

As the impacts of ocean acidification on sea life, including on commercially important species grows, it becomes increasingly important to understand the ways in which the ocean ecosystem is changing and how these changes will affect us. Gov. Gregoire turned to a blue-ribbon panel led by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Bill Ruckleshaus for answers. The panel responded with dozens of recommendations, from reducing carbon dioxide emissions to monitoring polluted runoff from storm drains.

The recommendations have been made – and now is the time to act. The governor realizes that further research is the key to both understanding the scope of the problem and to finding new solutions. She has correctly determined that the state’s higher education institutions provide a wealth of expertise and the facilities to provide new knowledge about the effects of ocean acidification. She has asked for the launch of a center to be located at the University of Washington to serve as the hub for this research.

Gov. Gregoire’s vision is already a living reality at Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, a leader in researching ocean acidification. Its marine scientists, along with faculty members from Western’s Huxley College of the Environment and College of Sciences and Technology, are currently leveraging more than $1 million in recent federal grants in an effort to better understand the impacts of changes in ocean water chemistry created by ocean acidification. The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, seeks to better understand how changing ocean chemistry is affecting microscopic organisms at the base of the food web whose fate is essential to determining the productivity of Washington State’s marine waters. Other research at Western’s marine center, funded by the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Board, is studying the impacts of ocean acidification on the larval stages of Dungeness crabs.

It is understandable why this state has taken the lead on this issue. For example, its commercially critical $270 million shellfish industry, already under siege from other issues related to water quality, is further threatened as the Puget Sound’s acidity levels rise and its waters become inhospitable to the critical larval stages of oysters and mussels. The fates of larvae of shellfish and crabs are not just critical to their own species, but they, and the even smaller marine creatures being studied at Western, make up the foundation of an interconnected food web that begins with these tiniest of creatures and ends with salmon, seals and orcas. Virtually the entire ecosystem is at risk when the pillars of the food web are shaken by potentially catastrophic water quality issues such as this one.

It is now time for the Legislature to move forward with the recommendations of the blue ribbon panel, including the creation and funding of a research center that can promote the work of understanding and addressing ocean acidification, particularly as it relates to the productive and valuable marine waters of Washington State.

In an era of decreasing state funds, leveraging existing assets such as Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center will allow every state dollar spent on ocean acidification to go further and contribute to the knowledge base that will enable scientists, policy makers and citizens to make informed decisions about ways to slow the pace of acidification of the state’s marine waters and about ways to mitigate its inevitable impacts. This approach, working with scientists at other universities as well as state and federal resource agencies and with stakeholders is central to a new initiative at Western, called Coastal Resources and Ecology of Washington. It brings together human and physical resources from throughout the university to bear on marine coastal issues of concern to the people of Washington. We at Western are looking forward to working with our colleagues from throughout the state to advance the governor’s initiative as described in her executive order and implemented by the state Legislature.

Steve Sulkin is director of Shannon Point Marine Center at Western Washington University. Washington State Sen. Kevin Ranker Chairs the Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification.

Steve Sulkin and Kevin Ranker, The Bellingham Herald, 2 January 2013. Article.

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