New York needs to act on ocean acidification

“The ocean acts like a sponge, absorbing most of the extra heat caused by our greenhouse gases. And it’s been growing warmer and more acidic for decades now. In other words, the very chemistry of our oceans is changing, which is risking marine life and rippling all the way up the food chain … This is not a far-off problem; it’s happening as we speak. It’s happening here in America.” – President Obama, at last week’s Our Ocean Conference

New York State needs Governor Cuomo to help prepare our state for the coming onslaught of a little known problem caused by more than a century of burning fossil fuels: ocean acidification.

It’s hard to imagine how we missed the connection for so long. Oceans naturally absorb carbon dioxide and, as we’ve increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning coal and oil, the basic chemistry of our oceans has become more acidic. Awareness of the impacts of ocean acidification – the so-called evil twin of global warming – is just beginning, but we know that acidic water makes it harder for many species of shell-building organisms, like clams, oysters, and scallops, to grow their protective coverings and survive.

The Pacific Coast’s shellfish industry nearly collapsed from low production of oyster seed several years ago. In the summer of 2007, hatcheries found their baby oysters dying by the millions for no obvious reason. The Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association banded together in 2008 to find a solution – instead discovering evidence of a worldwide crisis in ocean chemistry.

Turns out that the deep water ocean upwelling events that fed the area’s hatcheries were more carbon-saturated and corrosive than in the past. The young shellfish used up all of their energy to build shells in this environment and starved to death. Hatcheries made changes to protect their larvae from the most corrosive surges of water and the industry has fought its way back, but not before we had the unpleasant taste of what a more acidic ocean could bring.

New York is one of the states most vulnerable to ocean acidification

One of the challenges of ocean acidification is that the solution is not one-size-fits-all. New York doesn’t experience the seasonal upwelling events of the Pacific Coast, but is still one of the states most vulnerable to ocean acidification, due to our economic dependence on shellfish harvesting and because our waters have high levels of nitrogen pollution, which amplifies acidification:

From 2003-2012, New York ranked sixth in economic dependence on shelled mollusks in the United States; shellfish harvests brought in an average of $24 million annually. Shellfish comprised more than half of all fisheries revenues in the state and, with oysters, hard clams, and bay scallop aquaculture staging a comeback in the New York bays, offer the promise of far greater wealth.

In many areas along New York’s coast, lawns and leaky sewage systems pour excess nutrients such as nitrogen into waterways, which spurs excess algal growth. When the uneaten algae die, they decompose, releasing additional carbon dioxide and raising the acidity even higher.

A state ocean acidification task force is a strong first step to address the problem

A New York ocean acidification task force would help us identify the critical next steps needed to protect the state’s treasured shellfish and could mean the difference between the industry’s adaptation or failure.

States such as Maine, Maryland, and Wash­ington began to tackle their vulnerability to ocean acidification by assembling expert panels to evaluate economic and ecological risks and to identify measures to mitigate them. Thankfully, in June 2016 the New York State Legislature overwhelmingly passed the New York State Ocean Acidification Task Force Act that follows these models to establish a task force to identify the root causes contributing to ocean acidification in New York’s ocean waters and develop recommendations for stronger, more protective standards and actions to monitor and address the threat of ocean acidification to our coastal communities.

Just as West Coast states took steps to protect their shellfish, New York needs to develop solutions specific to our unique combination of risk factors. Efforts are in the beginning stages to develop a Mid-Atlantic regional network to monitor the problem of ocean acidification and a New York ocean acidification task force could help guide development of this work. Importantly, a state task force would advance discussion of the regulatory steps and adaptive measures needed here at home to protect from this pressing threat. The task force also would serve a complimentary role to the state’s final Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan to reduce nitrogen and improve the water quality of our ocean and bays.

We urge Governor Cuomo to sign the New York State Ocean Acidification Task Force Act to help prepare us for the future. Please consider showing your support by sending a message to the Governor at https://www.governor.ny.gov/content/governor-contact-form.

Alison Chase, NRDC Expert Blog, 21 September 2016. Article.

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OA-ICC HIGHLIGHTS

Ocean acidification in the IPCC AR5 WG II

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