A significant climate danger is lurking in B.C.’s ocean

Katie Pocock, a researcher with the Hakai Institute’s ocean acidification lab on Quadra Island, deploys sensor equipment to monitor conditions. Photo by Grant Callegari, courtesy Hakai Institute

Lurking in B.C.’s ocean is a lesser-known climate risk experts say has the potential to cause significant harm to the marine ecosystem and the economies of coastal communities.

Now scientists and stakeholders are developing an action plan to deal with the dual dangers of ocean acidification and hypoxia — or dangerously low oxygen levels — in the marine environment.

Adverse changes in the ocean are somewhat slower and less obvious to the public than some climate impacts, such as the fires and floods that ravaged the province last year, said biologist Myron Roth, co-chair of the panel developing the B.C. Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia (OAH) Action Plan.

“It’s not like a forest fire that comes up right in front of you,” said Roth, an aquaculture and fisheries expert with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. “It’s this slow, insidious change that by the time you notice, it’s almost too late.”

Ocean acidification (OA) and hypoxia, which often occur in tandem and can boost each other’s negative effects, can lead to shellfish die-offs, shifts or declines in commercial fish stocks, disruptions to food security and changes to the marine food web.

The ocean, which has absorbed up to 30 per cent of human-caused emissions over the past 200 years, is becoming increasingly acidic as a result.

The B.C. government identified ocean acidification as a top climate change risk in 2019 along with severe wildfires, seasonal water shortages and heat waves, Roth said.

Graphic indicating the top climate risks determined by the B.C. government in 2019. Courtesy B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

The action plan, expected to be drafted by spring, will evaluate what’s known about OAH on the B.C. coast, identify research and data gaps, and outline adaptation and mitigation strategies for the fisheries and aquaculture sectors, he added.

Workshops to shape B.C.’s plan are being facilitated by the Hakai Institute on Quadra Island, a key hub for scientific research on ocean acidification on the B.C. coast.

Although B.C. is just getting started on a plan, the first red flags around ocean acidification surfaced more than a decade ago in Washington and Oregon when shellfish hatcheries suffered massive die-offs of baby oysters.

In response, all the U.S. West Coast states launched intensive research and monitoring efforts into ways to mitigate and forecast the effects of increasingly acidic oceans, said researcher Wiley Evans, who leads Hakai’s OA research and also co-chairs the B.C.’s action plan development.

“British Columbia is the first province (in Canada) to truly put forward an action plan to try to address ocean acidification hypoxia, which is exciting,” Evans said.

“But we’re learning from other jurisdictions who have done this before.”

One of the goals of the plan will be to monitor ocean conditions and identify hot spots for acidification on the B.C. coast and what factors drive them, he said.

Research shows that B.C. waters, particularly the Johnstone Strait and the Salish Sea, experience higher rates of acidification compared to the global average, Evans said.

“We’ve shown that, in fact, the ocean acidification signal in B.C. is nearly two times the global average,” he said, adding the research findings are set to be published in coming weeks.

The biological impacts of ocean acidification aren’t a zero-sum game, said Evans, noting while shellfish and crustaceans may be negatively impacted, some other organisms like aquatic plants may benefit.

“What’s at stake here is how ocean acidification plays out. There’s going to be winners and losers,” he said.

Rochelle Baker, Canada’s National Observer, 28 February 2022. Full article.

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