Washington leads: connecting ocean acidification research to people who need it most

Jan Newton and Terrie Klinger lead the Washington Ocean Acidification Center

At the helm of EarthLab’s Washington Ocean Acidification Center are two experienced ocean scientists, but what they are trying to do is something entirely new. Terrie Klinger and Jan Newton are Salish Sea experts – one an ecologist, one an oceanographer – and they are addressing one of the biggest emerging threats to our environment today, ocean acidification.

“When we first were funded by the legislature to stand up the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, there was no precedent. We were starting from zero,” says Klinger. Born from a Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel, the Center was established by the legislature at the University of Washington to make sure actions to combat ocean acidification have a strong backbone in science. Along with colleagues and collaborators, it was up to Klinger and Newton to bring the new Center to life, making sure it serves the needs of Washington citizens.

Ocean acidification is a global phenomenon. Worldwide, the ocean plays an invaluable service to the planet by absorbing nearly 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activity. Yet this also drives a series of reactions that change seawater chemistry, and as a result the oceans are becoming more acidified, which poses a suite of problems to some marine organisms.

Ocean Acidification Challenges in Washington
In Washington, ocean acidification’s threat became visible in the state’s extensive shellfish industry. Corrosive seawater compromises the ability of shellfish to form their shells, especially in the animal’s early days. In years where seawater conditions are persistently harsh, shellfish farmers failed to raise any new oysters to marketable size, and livelihoods were at stake.

Answers began surfacing when the Washington Ocean Acidification Center connected with shellfish growers and other partners, helping solve what initially seemed like an intractable problem. Now the industry has new tools to manage corrosive water – like monitoring water conditions at the hatcheries, adding buffering agents to incoming seawater, or tracking forecasts of unfavorable water conditions through LiveOcean. In many cases, these tools have allowed shellfish – and business – to continue thriving.

Over the years, the Center’s approach to research has become even more sophisticated, all while remaining “grounded on the Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations to sustain observations, modeling, and biological experiments relevant to ocean acidification,” says Newton. They now can start telling the much deeper story of how ocean acidification threatens ocean food webs, which underpins the eye-popping amount of wildlife and productivity in Puget Sound.

“We’re trying to use the lens of ocean acidification to help solve bigger problems,” says Klinger. “We’ve really grown over our six years and are moving from just a focus on, let’s say shellfish, to include salmon, forage fish and other parts of our ecosystem that are really important to the region.” Expanding focus matters because it can answer questions at a larger scale, helping decision-makers create conservation strategies that support the tiniest creatures all the way up to the big ones, like the southern resident orca whales.

Asking challenging, big-picture questions has always been a part of the Center’s vision and mission. On the research docket now is an investigation into how ocean acidification affects small schooling fish that feed and fuel so many of the Salish Sea’s iconic residents, like salmon, rockfish and marine mammals. Acidifying waters have already been shown to have adverse effects on a fish called the sandlance on the east coast – a species that is also present in the Salish Sea. There is new evidence that shows how increasingly acidified waters affect the ability of young salmon to detect predators, and concern that it may also affect their ability to make their way back to their natal streams where they eventually reproduce.

University of Washington EarthLab, 29 July 2019. Full Article.

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