The Ocean Foundation: pH monitoring – the acid test

It was while watching an experiment first-hand that Mark Spalding, President of the Ocean Foundation, really got the point about ocean acidification.

He remembers “an experiment in which CO2 was pumped into a sea floor enclosure and watching in horror as a sea anemone and other creatures tried to shrink away from the exposure the way one might shrink back from a fire.” For Spalding, the sight crystallised “the existential threat that ocean acidification poses to the entire food web of the ocean.”

The lowering of the pH of the Earth’s oceans, driven by the increasing levels of CO2 in our atmosphere, is one of climate change’s most serious impacts. It puts many marine species at risk, depressing their metabolisms and immune responses, and calcifying organisms are particularly threatened – increased coral bleaching is another symptom of our increasingly acidic ocean.

While the long-term global goal must be to mitigate the CO2 emissions causing the acidification in the first place, the immediate priority is to learn more about what’s going on right now, and to act and adapt as effectively as possible in response.

Programme Manager Alexis Valauri-Orton had become convinced of this during a research fellowship studying the issue: “I spoke with oyster farmers, coral-dependent communities, and other people vulnerable to ocean acidification. Time and time again I was told that there were changes happening in the local water, and I was asked to explain the changes. But, without any local monitoring data, I couldn’t answer the questions.”

And so an idea was born: “I walked away from that year of research convinced that the first step to doing something about ocean acidification was to improve monitoring in vulnerable communities.”

At Our Ocean in 2017, The Ocean Foundation made a commitment to invest $1.25 million to build the capacity of developing nations to monitor, understand and respond to the issue of ocean acidification. This included the development of monitoring kits; the training of scientists in monitoring techniques; a researcher mentorship scheme; and support for policymakers at a national and international level.

Previously, monitoring had simply been too expensive for many countries to carry out – kits cost in excess of $300,000 and could only be operated through state-of-the-art laboratories. But The Ocean Foundation was determined to shake things up. Valauri-Orton explains: “Everyone has a right to understand their local water. We work with our partners to develop low cost and modular systems that enable people in remote islands or resource limited labs to conduct high quality monitoring.”

The development of the new kits has been so successful that the cost of pH monitoring has fallen by 90%: 17 of them have so far been delivered to 16 different countries1. What’s more, to date more than 100 scientists and 50 policymakers have undergone training, nine mentorship scholarships and 13 collaborative research and travel grants have been awarded, and two regional resolutions have been passed through the UN Environment and IOCARIBE.

1 Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Fiji, Jamaica, Mauritius, Mexico, Mozambique, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Panama, Samoa, South Africa, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Vanuatu

Crucially, combining kits with training has yielded exponential returns on investment. In Mauritius, for example, there used to be no monitoring on ocean acidification. But The Ocean Foundation’s training workshops, monitoring kits and tailored coaching led to a permanent, national monitoring programme, as well as the securing of multiple grants to expand their work.

“The story is essentially one of our training,” says Valauri-Orton. “This investment from The Ocean Foundation into our partners in Mauritius enabled them to build something strong enough to receive additional funding, from both their own institutions and from international funds.”

Having embedded ocean acidification as a priority and acquired the additional funds to support this work, Mauritius is now leading the training in the Western Indian Ocean for scientists new to ocean acidification.

The fruits of the wide-ranging capacity building programmes are also felt at a personal level, as Valauri-Orton recalls with pride:

“At the 4th Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) International Workshop in Hangzhou in April 2019, I watched three scientists I had helped train present to a global audience. I had worked with these scientists for three years to help them launch their programmes, helping to troubleshoot each step of the way. Between Facebook messages sharing small successes and more formal reports, I watched as they went from student to teacher, from newcomer to respected expert. It’s moments like those that make me feel like I am really contributing to the ability of communities around the world to understand and respond to ocean acidification.”

Mark Spalding is equally enthusiastic – and he credits Our Ocean for playing its part. “We feel strongly that it was the Our Ocean Conference series that first gave sufficiently serious attention to ocean acidification in a forum for many governments to really take notice.

“Formal commitments which are then examined to see if they’re fulfilled means there’s transparent accountability. This appears to be making a real difference.

“The ocean community as a whole needed the attention that the founders of Our Ocean brought to the conversation. The series elevated a number of critical issues in a way that the community could not have done without help from the international, high level effort that was begun here.”

OurOcean, 20 October 2019. Article.

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