Obama seeks $30M for ocean acidification studies

Monterey >> Marine researchers found a gift hidden among the loophole closures and tax changes in the President Barack Obama’s new budget.

Released Monday, the budget proposal for fiscal year 2016 included $30 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study ocean acidification, the ongoing change in ocean chemistry caused by higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air.

“It’s a really important issue in California because here it’s acidifying twice as fast,” said Kristy Kroeker, a biologist at UC Santa Cruz.

It’s twice as much as the president requested last year, and more than three times greater than the amount Congress approved. The money would be used, in part, for grants to scientists like Francisco Chavez, a biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, who study the effects of acidification on local marine plants and animals.

“We’re trying to understand how organisms in general might respond to this,” said Chavez, adding that the full consequences of ocean acidification are uncertain. “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Ocean acidification is a consequence of burning fossil fuels. The more carbon dioxide there is in the air, the more the ocean absorbs. Once it’s in the ocean, it creates compounds that break apart and make the sea more acidic.

This is especially bad for shellfish because it strips the ocean of compounds they need to build their shells. The effects could even travel up and down the food chain.

“Does that mean salmon success is going to be impacted?” Chavez said. “Maybe. We need this research money to come in to help us figure those things out.”

The problems associated with ocean acidification might be exacerbated along California’s coast. Cold water from the deep ocean can rise to the surface in upwells, bringing water that’s even more acidic. It’s a natural phenomenon, but it further stresses the coastal ecosystem.

“Ocean acidification can make it harder for a lot of the animals to survive and grow,” Kroeker said. “Things like oysters or abalone or sea urchins — those organisms do worse.”

Kroeker works on a project studying if sea grass can help alleviate the effects of higher acidity, at least in small areas. Because it’s a plant, sea grass gobbles up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, creating pockets of less acidic water in its neighborhood.

“We’re looking at whether sea grass can create refuges,” Kroeker said. “We want to know if we can somehow use sea grass to protect oysters and help them grow more naturally.”

Kroeker is currently looking for funds to study how kelp forests might provide similar sanctuaries. The proposed increase in NOAA funding might finance her next project.

But scientists aren’t the only ones interested in understanding the effects of ocean acidification.

“The health of our economy is linked to the health of our oceans,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, in a joint statement released Monday. “Rapid changes in ocean chemistry are threatening many aquatic species, particularly shellfish, endangering the jobs that rely on abundant healthy populations.”

Farr plans to introduce a bill later this year to lend more support to ocean acidification research, as well as provide affected industries tools and information to help them respond.

Chris Cesare, Monterey Herald, 4 February 2015. Article.

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