Oceans at risk, a culture at stake

We have seen many significant changes to Washington’s landscape, climate and waters in our lifetime. We have watched with dismay as habitat, salmon runs, and shellfish beds have been lost. Ocean acidification is the most recently recognized of these changes, a serious and immediate threat to our marine resources, one that has developed at an alarming and unprecedented rate.

Salmon and shellfish are at the very core of the Tulalip Tribes’ and other first nations’ culture. More than just traditional food staples and economic health are at risk here. Our very culture is at stake. These Northwest icons and many other marine species and thousands of Washington jobs are in jeopardy and need our protection.

Global warming has melted glaciers, leading to early runoff then drought and sediment-loading problems in our streams and rivers. Another alarming effect is the deterioration of the marine food chain with key links such as plankton and forage fish in decline. Many of the small creatures at the base of the food web need calcium carbonate to build their shells and are especially vulnerable to ocean acidification, which reduces the calcium carbonate available in seawater.

Add these destructive forces together, and the challenge is clear. The Washington State Panel on Ocean Acidification that I served on last year established the troubled future that is inevitable unless we begin adapting to, mitigating and remediating the harmful effects of these combined and accelerating problems.

As panelist Bill Dewey, Communications and Policy Director for Taylor Shellfish Farms, said, “If we don’t begin addressing ocean acidification promptly, I believe the future of shellfish farming and the entire seafood industry is at stake. On our current path, we are consigning our heirs to a world of increasing scarcity and conflict over ocean resources. All our efforts at marine conservation and resource management will prove inadequate if we don’t tackle the most basic problem of all–ocean acidification.”

Frankly, there’s not much we Washingtonians can do by ourselves about the cause of ocean acidification: global CO2 emissions. We contribute such a small amount to the 70 million tons of CO2 that the world pumps into the atmosphere every day. What we can do is be a model for taking thoughtful and responsible action, for educating others about acidification and urging them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We can do what the governor challenged us to do: lead.

And we can do something about the local and land-based sources of pollution. Millions of tons of so-called “nutrients,” primarily nitrogen, pour into Puget Sound every year. Human and animal waste runoff are major sources that result in harmful algae blooms, oxygen depletion and sea life die offs. Reducing these local causes of acidification and other problems is a prime recommendation of the panel.

We have proven and even profitable ways to control this waste. For instance, Tulalip tribal and agricultural leaders collaborated to see whether we might be able to manage farm waste for profit while cleaning up our rivers. We studied successful efforts around the world and put what we learned to use here in Snohomish County. Qualco Energy in Monroe was the result.

Since 2008, the Tulalips have worked with cattle and dairy farmers and others to convert manure and food, brewery, and other bio-waste into energy and fertilizer. Our anaerobic biodigester generates 450 kw hours of green energy, sells the electricity for $25,000 per month to Puget Sound Energy and gets $35,000 monthly in “tipping fees” for using the food waste that otherwise ends up in landfills or waste water treatment plants. We are now studying how we might quantify our achievement and qualify for carbon credits.

Herlad Net Opinion, 20 January 2013. Full article.

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