Confronting Ocean Acidification: It’s Going to Take a Village

I’m really hoping last week was a turning point for the ocean. After spending a sobering week in Montereyat a gathering of over 500 ocean scientists, where I learned the latest about the threat of ocean acidification to the health of the ocean, I’ve concluded we are all going to have to pull together if we want a livable ocean in the future.

Since the first global conference on ocean acidification in 2004, a large and passionate group of scientists has coalesced to determine what is happening to our ocean.  Some of these leaders were profiled in the Washington Post yesterday, names that aren’t yet known to the general public but who are firsthand witnesses to a changing ocean. Folks like Dick Feeley, Gretchen Hofmann and Jean-Pierre Gattuso are ocean pioneers, working overtime to understand the threat that our continued burning of fossil fuels poses to the ocean.  Their insights and those from many of their colleagues are now pouring in across a range of scientific disciplines from oceanography to ecology and evolution. While last week’s conference shows that the science on specific species and how they might react is variable and nuanced, one conclusion is clear – ocean acidification is real, it is happening now and it is impacting real people. Scientists can’t yet predict exactly what will happen to every species, but it is clear that the ocean of the future will be fundamentally different from that of today, unless we work together to stem the tide of ocean acidification.

Everyone on earth has a vested interest in a healthy ocean, for the ocean provides much of the food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe. Shellfish farmers like Mark Wiegardt and Sue Cudd have been hardest hit to date; the industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly went bankrupt before scientists determined corrosive seawater was killing their juvenile oysters. But ocean acidification will effect more than just shellfish farmers. Fishermen, seafood retailers, and ultimately consumers will likely be impacted as the base of the ocean food web is restructured.  Others dependent on a living ocean – whether they value the ocean for recreation or profit – need to learn much more about this threat. This includes everyone from recreational scuba divers who treasure coral reefs to the cruise ship industry who ferries tourists to the tropics.  In short, if you have a vested interest in the ocean of today, you need to be deeply concerned about ocean acidification and the ocean of tomorrow.

Scientists are generally a cautious bunch, but the message from Montereylast week was loud and clear.  “We now know enough to know that there is urgency to act,” declared Dr. Gattuso to Science magazine. This sentiment was echoed by Prince Albert II of Monaco and other luminaries in front of a packed house of educators, media, filmmakers, conservationists, scientists, and industry at the conclusion of the conference. The rapidly growing body of science shows that the old adage “think globally but act locally” applies to the ocean as well.  It shows that nutrient and coastal pollution make acidification worse. Overfishing makes ecosystems more vulnerable. Destroying habitats – including sea grasses, salt marshes and mangroves – releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further accelerating acidification and climate change.  All of these are threats we can tackle now.  This will buy us some valuable time as we turn up the pressure our elected officials to work constructively with the global community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

None of this will be easy and it can’t be done by any one group or individual. Confronting ocean acidification really will take a village. But I’m pretty sure I saw that village begin to come together last week in Monterey.

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