The acidifying oceans

OSU study looks at major impacts on oyster growers.

Climate scientists estimate that the Earth’s oceans absorb 22 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every day. That has led to changes in the chemistry of the oceans, which have long acted as a sink for carbon emissions but are now absorbing more than they can handle without sustaining serious damage.

The result is increasing acidification of the oceans, a change that is destroying coral reefs and degrading the marine food chain. That, in turn, threatens the economic future of coastal communities and businesses that rely on a healthy marine ecosystem.

As recently reported by The Register-Guard’s Diane Dietz, Pacific Northwest oyster growers understand all too well the effects of ocean acidification and its connection to climate change.

Roughly half of all greenhouse gases produced by the consumption of fossil fuels are absorbed by the world’s oceans, which are steadily warming. As the Arctic sea ice melts, ocean levels have risen, becoming nearly a third more acidic than in pre-industrial times. In acidic water, corals and shellfish struggle to form skeletons and shells.

An Oregon State University study published this week in the Journal of Shellfish Research says that more than 75 percent of oyster growers surveyed said they were either “extremely” or “very” concerned about ocean acidification — a percentage far greater than the general public. Many reported economic losses, particularly in “hot spots” such as off the coast of Oregon. Some shellfish farmers have moved their operations, while others have been forced to alter the way they operate because of changes to the oceans.

Oregon grower Lilli Clausen told Dietz that the high acid levels destroyed two years’ worth of larvae in the mid-2000s. A section of formerly productive oyster flats in Coos Bay produced just 50 baskets of oysters — 10 percent of its former yield. That’s economic pain of the first order.

The damage extends far beyond shellfish. An Australian-led study released last week examined the impact of climate change on 13,000 marine species. While some fish species have successfully moved into cooler waters, others face extinction because of warming waters and acidification.

The studies come as the Obama administration is preparing to impose the first nationwide limits on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, the source of nearly a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The plan will result in the closure of hundreds of coal-fired power plants and encourage new investments in cleaner fuels and energy efficiency. Yet the energy industry and its foot soldiers in Congress are working to weaken or kill the plan, arguing with little justification that it will ratchet up power prices and cost thousands of jobs.

Before voting to undermine Obama’s plan, federal lawmakers should weigh the consequences. A good first step might be spending a little quality time with an Oregon oyster farmer.

The Register-Guard, 4 September 2015. Article.

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