California must fight to save its coastal fisheries

Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2017

While the Trump administration and greenhouse gas-emitting industries continue to ignore science, California’s coastal fisheries are becoming some of the early victims of global climate change. Our state is not helpless, though, and a new action plan offers hope that we might fight back against one of the most pernicious threats — ocean acidification.

As seawater warms, it absorbs more carbon dioxide and becomes increasingly acidic. That throws the biochemistry of the ocean out of balance, and sea life suffers. Animals might evolve to handle such changes if they occur slowly over thousands or millions of years. When significant changes occur over mere decades, though, species just die.

The creatures most harmed by acidification tend to be at the bottom of the food chain. That means when they start to die off, bigger creatures lose their source of food and also suffer.

If acidification continues unchecked, it will devastate fisheries and the economies that rely on them. California’s ocean-based activities contribute about $45 billion to the state’s economy and employ more than half a million people. Commercial fishing makes up a sizable part of that, but don’t discount the lure of the sea. Tourism and recreation also contribute significantly to the economy as visitors to the coast book hotels, eat out and try to catch some salmon.

To put that in focus locally, combined “forestry fishing and related activities” generate $100 million of earnings in Sonoma County.

The California Ocean Protection Council wants to save those industries and communities. It recently adopted a California Ocean Acidification Action Plan that proposes six strategies to mitigate the worst outcomes of acidification. They include reducing local pollution that contributes to acidification, deploying living systems that store carbon and building local community resilience.

It’s not a cure-all. Other problems are emerging in coastal waters. Inland droughts affect salmon habitats. New research finds that a new annual hypoxia (low-oxygen) season off the West Coast threatens bottom-dwelling species such as crabs. And toxic algae blooms harm many commercially harvested species.

Sonoma County and all California coastal communities already have started to experience the effects of these environmental changes. Recent years of drought curtailed the salmon season last year. The state shut down the 2018 red abalone harvest to give the species a chance to recover. And the Dungeness crab season has been delayed in many recent years.

Issues with the crab harvest are particularly worrisome because it is a huge moneymaker for fisheries north of San Francisco. Not being able to deliver for the holidays, when many consumers traditionally buy fresh crab, hits the market hard. The federal government committed $26 million of relief to help fishermen and women affected by the poor recent harvests.

Time is running out to prevent the climate change’s worst predictions, but California still can act to mitigate harm locally. The Ocean Acidification Action Plan is merely a strategic document, albeit a bold and carefully researched one. Now local and state leaders must find the will and the money to implement it and other strategies to save coastal sea life.

The Press Democrat, 2 November 2018. Article.

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