Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist speaks about risks of ocean acidification

COLUMBIA — Craig Welch said he didn’t exactly know what he was getting himself into when he went fishing with two Papua New Guinea natives in an area that was notorious for sharks.

Trying to break the ice, he said to them: “So, we’re not going to see any sharks, right?” Welch said the two men looked at each other, and said: “Well, when we stab the fish, we’ll try very hard to put them on the boat because when we stab them, they bleed, and that’s what draws the sharks.”

Welch, a former journalist for The Seattle Times and current National Geographic staff writer, spoke to a group of about 70 students, faculty members and community members Wednesday night in Fisher Auditorium about his Pulitzer Prize-winning project about ocean acidification, “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn.” The talk was sponsored by the student group Science, Health & Environmental Journalism.

Welch primarily focused on the struggle of getting people to be interested in ocean acidification, a phenomenon not everyone experiences. Acidification occurs when carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, resulting in chemical reactions that cause alterations in seawater pH and other imbalances, according to Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

When he started working on “Sea Change,” the project concentrated on toxic algae that threaten breeding grounds for oysters in the Pacific Northwest. The focus later shifted to the impact of acidification on people. Welch and photographer Steve Ringman criss-crossed oceans to explore the topic.

The two men then became interested on the King crab industry and the economic impacts of shortages caused by ocean acidification. Other issues Welch and Ringman focused on included the fate of the fishing industry in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and the future of sea wildlife species.

When the men visited Papua New Guinea, Welch said they witnessed a scientist pulling plates off the ocean floor that she had placed a year earlier to measure acidification.

In the areas of the plates with no carbon dioxide bubbles, which cause the acidification, bright blues and pinks and yellows coral and other specimens thrived. In other areas of the plates with carbon dioxide bubbles, the coral crusted over with a brown substance.

“This showed just how different the world would look if we add too much (carbon dioxide) to the water,” Welch said. “This is all really cool and everything, but at some point, it’s got to actually mean something to human beings.”

From there, he said they focused on talking to people in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea whose entire livelihood depends on the flourishing of coral reefs.

“There are communities in parts of Indonesia that depend on this for what they eat,” he said. “It’s how they make their money. Some of them don’t even have land, and they barter fish for fresh water use.”

The Bajau people of Indonesia live in stilt villages, which are built over the water, so “everything in their world is surrounded around fish.”

Throughout this journey, he said he encountered a wide range of reactions when he talked about ocean acidification. Some people are quick to deny climate change is happening but quickly accept the risks of rising levels carbon dioxide levels in the oceans.

Welch’s work isn’t just to satisfy his own curiosity. He said he aims to encourage younger generations to care about the planet.

“The reason that I’m doing this work is because my generation has not done the best at protecting the world for your generation,” he said. “I have a young son, and I want this world to be better for him and that generation, and I’m hoping you guys can do a little bit better than I did.”

Emma Diltz, Columbia Missourian, 27 April 2016. Article.

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