Guest column: taking on ocean acidification in the Northwest

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey summed up the urgency of ocean acidification (OA) on the West Coast when he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Ocean acidification is the lightning strike in our front yard, right here, right now.”

Fueled by carbon emissions that mix into the sea, that lightning struck first in Oregon and Washington.

Starting in 2007, hatcheries that supply the coastwide oyster industry suffered devastating losses, as ordinary seawater killed their larvae by the billions during the late 2000s. As the supply of these tiny young livestock began disappearing, the oyster industry faced catastrophe. The hardest hit supplier, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery at Oregon’s Netarts Bay, was also the first to find a provisional “workaround.” By collaborating with researchers to monitor seawater chemistry, operators learned to dodge “bad” water, buffer it, and keep their vulnerable young oysters alive – for now.

Since then, scientists, legislators, seafood producers, coastal stewards and others have been searching out and finding ways to reduce the causes and consequences of this sea change. We will discuss three approaches at the Marine Resource Committee Coastal Summit in Cathlamet on Saturday.

The first of these is the Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s proposal to harness the CO2-absorbing power of photosynthesis by cultivating seaweed to mitigate ocean acidification locally, while enhancing marine habitat and a yielding valuable “crop.”

Fueling their growth by absorbing CO2 from the water, farmed seaweeds such as kelps have potential to “sweeten” seawater, boost its oxygen levels, and create chemical refuges for sensitive marine animals – a protective “halo” in local waters. Harvesting the cultured seaweed could then remove the carbon that the seaweed absorbed from the ocean.

Finding viable markets for many tons of seaweed is a challenge, although Asian producers already earn about $7 billion a year doing just that. In the U.S., harvested seaweed could be used in compost and other products. The team proposed cultivating kelp at four demonstration sites in the Northwest to refine techniques to draw down dissolved CO2 and nutrients that can drive algal blooms and harm nearshore ecosystems. The technology and approach is scalable to many marine areas facing acidification.

The Global Ocean Health Program proposes to benefit from the impending threat of sea-level rise, seeing it as an unexpected opportunity to use the expanded inundation zone to mitigate acidification locally and open new opportunities for fisheries, mariculture and coastal tourism.

Seagrass and seaweed can soak up colossal amounts of CO2. Under the right conditions, native eelgrass may create “chemical refuges” that protect vulnerable (and valuable) shellfish and corals from acidification. The expanding ocean will convert many low-elevation flatlands into shallow bays suitable for seagrass and other coastal marine vegetation. These places have great potential to shelter shellfish and other species from acidification – provided we learn to manage them for that result.

Rising seas will change our coasts. If the ocean rises 1 meter, it will submerge an estimated 2.2 million km worldwide. This will create new growth areas for vegetated marine habitats, such as saltmarsh and seagrass, which provide nursery grounds for much of the world’s seafood. These photosynthesizing systems also remove vast quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans. Covering just 0.5 percent of the seabed, they bury nearly as much carbon as all the world’s forests, which cover 20 times more area.

Washington suited to lead

The next step is to develop and test an integrated strategy to understand and maximize these benefits as the sea rises. With its broad coastal flatlands and its resourceful shellfish industry, Southwest Washington is well suited to lead this effort.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens have a chance to weigh in on proposed developments and policies that will significantly affect ocean health by reducing or increasing CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels. One example is the string of proposed export terminals designed to ship coal and tar-sands oil to Asia from the Pacific Northwest.

Building these export facilities could commit the world to a lasting increase in emissions by providing cheap U.S. coal to price-sensitive Asian markets. It would signal capital markets that the U.S. will not impede that trade, encouraging new investment in more coal plants. And it will “lock in” large markets for coal that would otherwise stay buried beneath North American ground for lack of demand.

Proponents of fossil fuel export facilities at Bellingham, Longview and Morrow tout the new jobs they might support. But permanently stepping up emissions will accelerate acidification, jeopardizing many more jobs in the region’s seafood industry. A few years ago the near-collapse of shellfish farming because of acidification threatened 3,200 jobs in Washington alone, mainly in rural areas with high unemployment.

Marine food webs and many other important fisheries are expected to take a heavier hit as emissions increase. The stakes are significant for Washington. The state’s seafood industry generates over 42,000 jobs and more than $1.7 billion in total economic impact.

So much is on the table for citizens of Washington and Oregon. Those wishing to learn more about ocean acidification and how it might be mitigated are invited to the Marine Resources Committees Coastal Forum to be held at Pioneer Church in Cathlamet, Wash., 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Saturday. For information, check http://surfriderwashingtoncoast.blogspot.com/p/2013-mrc-summit.html

Brad Warren is the director of the Global Ocean Health Program and was a member of the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Michael Rust is the Aquaculture Science Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and specializes in seaweed agronomy. Eric Swenson is communications and outreach director for the Global Ocean Health Program.

Brad Warren, Michael Rust & Eric Swenson. The Daily Astorian. 7 November 2013. Article.


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