When Facing Ocean Acidification it’s Location, Location, Location

For us landlubbers, it is obvious that place matters.  My home town in central California is a pretty different place than say, Washington DC, where I often travel to advocate on behalf of ocean conservation.  The weather is different, the food is different, and the culture – not to mention the politics – is certainly different.

It turns out that place really matters in the ocean too, especially as it relates to ocean acidification.  Never heard of ocean acidification?  Check out some of my earlier posts to learn more about the basics.  But what we learned from scientists last week is that the chemical characteristics of the ocean vary greatly from place to place, and as a result some areas may be especially sensitive to increases in carbon dioxide and other drivers of acidification.  A team of oceanographers led by Dr. Aleck Wang sampled seawater from Texas to New Hampshire and measured the total amount of carbon in the water as well as what scientists call “alkalinity.” The ratio of alkalinity to total carbon is a measure of the buffering capacity of the ocean, or in layman’s terms, the ocean’s ability to resist acidification. What the scientists found was that the Gulf of Maine is much more susceptible to acidification than the Gulf of Mexico or the southeastern coast. 

If you are a fisherman or fish farmer who makes a living from the Gulf of Maine, this is sobering news.  In fact, at last week’s Fishermen’s Forum in Rockland, Maine, our ocean acidification team heard from many in the fishing industry – lobstermen, clammers, and others – who are seeing major changes in the ocean environment and are deeply concerned.  Members of the Maine seafood industry are keen to do something to address these environmental challenges for they know their culture and livelihood depend on it.  Economically, a lot is riding on a healthy Maine coastline that will increasingly be undermined by ocean acidification and other effects of carbon on the ocean.

Other regions are rising to confront ocean acidification as well. The Pacific Northwest is under assault from rising acidity and the shellfish industry has been at the tip of the spear. Washington’s governor at the time, Christine Gregoire, established a Blue Ribbon Panel last year that recently released a series of regionally-specific recommendations on how the state can address this issue. Elected officials are now are now advancing concepts for state legislation to empower action. In part a response to Washington’s recent effort, California has now constituted an expert science panel to evaluate the extent of acidification in California’s ocean waters, identify ecological and socioeconomic research needs, and begin to identify private sector and public policy strategies to fight back.  As last week’s study by Dr. Wang shows, each region’s response needs to be grounded in a deep understanding of its local ocean.  But just as important, each regional response needs to be based upon a keen understanding of the local ocean industries and other local interests who depend on a healthy ocean.

It behooves other states to get out ahead of this impending challenge as well. Ocean acidification and the threat that carbon dioxide pose to the ocean may very well be the marine conservation challenge of our time. But all is not lost for people are now paying attention.  With a committed effort by scientists, ocean industries, private foundations, conservationists, policymakers and the general public, together we can help ensure the oceans continue to provide us with the goods and services upon which we depend, regardless of which place we call home.

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