Ocean Currents

Ocean Acidification: How One Coastal State Starts to Tackle a Global Challenge

Credit: swamibu flickr stream

Seattle–one of my favorite cities. I first came here in 2006 and fell in love with Puget Sound, the strong smell of coffee and the surprisingly steep downtown streets that make my morning runs more challenging than I’m used to, given the gentle slopes of DC.

Today I’ve just attended an event at the beautiful Seattle Aquarium to hear Washington Governor Christine Gregoire announce the first ever state response to ocean acidification — a little-known threat that hit the Pacific Northwest shellfish industry like an invisible ton of bricks back in 2007 and now has top billing in Washington and across the country today.

Ocean acidification is what happens when significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the ocean.  A chemical reaction is occurring in our oceans right now as our carbon emissions increase.  Because of the amount of carbon pollution being absorbed by the ocean, its pH is lowered, turning it more acidic. The ocean is 25% more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution.

I just spent Thanksgiving with some relatives in Virginia and their reaction when I told them about ocean acidification was, “that sounds really, really bad.” It is.  Changing the chemistry of the ocean because of our pollution means that shell-building animals have trouble building the shells necessary for their survival. This is already hurting business owners like Mark Weidgart of Whiskey Creek Hatchery in Oregon – his business provides oyster seed for shellfish growers up and down the west coast.  When seawater is more acidic, oysters have trouble building their shells.  It’s not just oysters. Scientists are seeing the impacts today on pteropods, tiny sea snails that are an important food source for juvenile salmon and other fish that we like to eat.

So if we’re talking about worldwide carbon emissions being the cause of ocean acidification, what can one state that is on the front lines of this problem, realistically do? Well plenty, judging by today’s announcement.  While our carbon emissions are the root cause, acidification is made worse by local land-based pollution.  Imagine a pie that represents the sources of pollution turning our ocean more acidic.  Roughly two-thirds of the pie is made up of our carbon emissions.   But one-third of that pie comes from land-based pollution like runoff, stormwater, agricultural waste.  We can and must tackle those local sources, right now – to protect our coastal communities and businesses.

Governor Gregoire has made a significant commitment in the form of an Executive Order and allocating funds to ocean acidification priorities.  And her panelists have detailed an action plan that allows for even more action to be taken today — action that can make a difference to businesses who earn a living from growing shellfish that we all enjoy.  One in six oysters consumed in the United States comes from Willapa Bay.  Now it’s up to other states like Oregon, California and Maine to follow Washington’s excellent model for action.

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