Fund the race to save marine life from souring seas

Photo by John Lok (ST)

Photo by John Lok (ST)

Congress must invest in research to combat acidic seawater conditions.

OVER the past several years, it has become apparent that Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound waters are becoming more acidic and that increased acidity can be lethal to Pacific oysters. New data are becoming available that indicate that other species are also threatened. Salmon, Dungeness crab and razor clams are iconic Pacific Northwest species, supporting robust commercial and recreational harvests — all three are threatened by ocean acidification. But we don’t know enough yet about the severity or the immediacy of the threat to these species to develop an appropriate response.

Let’s go back to the basics: Carbon-dioxide emissions, along with urban and rural runoff, are causing seawater to become more acidic, damaging the basic building blocks of life needed by oysters, clams and other sea creatures. The impacts of this phenomenon, known as “ocean acidification,” are being felt all over the world, but nowhere more than right here in the Pacific Northwest.

We are on the front lines of this global issue due to our unique geography: Acidified water tends to sink to the bottom, hiding its insidious ecosystem impacts. But under certain weather and ocean current conditions, the cold, deep waters of the Pacific “upwell” off our coast, bringing more acidic seawater to the surface and then into our rich coastal bays, inlets and Puget Sound.

That brings us back to oysters: They thrive in our coastal bays and in Puget Sound, but increased acidity is lethal during their larval stage of life. This is an environmental and an economic problem. The oyster industry employs thousands, but it is the location of these jobs — typically rural areas still struggling to find their part in the economic recovery — that makes these jobs so important. Oyster-growing is particularly important in communities on the coast and in the South Puget Sound.

Today, the shellfish industry, an economic bedrock of rural communities like Shelton and Long Beach, faces an existential threat. Acidification of marine waters poses a threat to the industry unlike anything seen previously. And, it’s not just oysters. Many other shelled species, including Dungeness crab and pteropods, a favorite food of salmon, are showing vulnerability to acidification,

Fortunately our state has not been idle.

In 2011, we co-chaired a blue-ribbon panel on ocean acidification convened by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire. The panel, representing a diverse cross-section of policymakers, scientists and shellfish-industry representatives, identified a suite of actions for the state to undertake. We recommended creation of an agency to make sure that our recommendations regarding ocean acidification are implemented. The Marine Resources Advisory Council was created for this purpose and is doing excellent work to make sure we are taking the actions necessary to address acidifying waters off our coast and in Puget Sound.

We also recommended creation of a science panel to coordinate and prioritize necessary research, monitoring and scientific analysis. The University of Washington’s Ocean Acidification Center is doing just that as it leads the Pacific Northwest’s research effort on ocean acidification.

All of this costs money: That’s why one of the blue-ribbon panel’s top recommendations was securing additional federal and state funding for critical research and monitoring. We need to know much more about how acidification will impact other species, such as razor clams and salmon, in order to respond to it effectively.

But the research dollars simply are not there — yet. While the Washington state Legislature appropriated $1.8 million to start the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, much more is needed. We are greatly encouraged by President Obama’s 2016 federal budget request, which includes $30 million for exactly the kind of ocean-acidification research called for by experts and industries in our state. If approved by Congress, this would more than triple the $8.5 million being spent this year.

This budget proposal shows the Obama administration is listening to states like Washington, which are calling for more funding for ocean-acidification research and monitoring. Now we need Congress to follow through and fund the administration’s request.

Luckily, Washington’s congressional delegation is well-placed to help make this funding become a reality. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, and Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, all sit on the powerful Appropriations committees in the U.S. House and Senate that will decide the fate of the administration’s ocean-acidification funding proposal. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also has been a tireless leader on ocean acidification and we are confident that she will help ensure appropriate increases in funding levels.

Every dollar spent expanding our understanding of the complex issue of ocean acidification will lead to strategic, cost-efficient responses that protect Washington’s economy and safeguard our natural resources, and communities will play an important part of our rural economy.

Jay MAnning & Bill Ruckelshaus, The Seattle Times, 20 May 2015. Article.

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