December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Two brothers sat down to a meal of oysters. But these were not just any brothers, and this certainly was not your average meal. Their names were Orville and Wilbur Wright, and this was their final meal before they attempted what no one had ever successfully accomplished: to fly.
Many people dismissed them as nothing more than a couple dreamers who were crazy enough to believe they could fly. Later that day, only five people showed up to watch the launch.
We all know how the Wright brothers’ story turned out. Thanks to their ingenuity, we no longer blink an eye when we defy gravity and jet from one side of the world to the other at 40,000 feet. But the carbon pollution from our jet-setting lifestyle is adding up and altering the pH balance of our oceans, causing forward-thinking business owners in Virginia and North Carolina to consider how to safeguard their oyster industries from ocean acidification.
Recently, after meeting with shellfish growers in Virginia, I traveled to Morehead City, North Carolina to meet a group of shellfish growers, recreational fishermen, natural resource managers, coastal development planners, scientists, and environmental groups to discuss acidification in local waters. While ocean acidification is not a huge worry among stakeholders by itself, it could combine with the effects of existing runoff pollution in concerning ways.
Pollution in the form of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and other chemicals that wash from urban and rural lands already causes problems for coastal ecosystems and the people who rely on healthy, consistently productive waters. Specific animals like oysters, crabs and fish, and whole ecosystems are already affected by runoff pollution from specific events, like rainstorms. Often, these impacts take the form of sudden die-offs. And the state is tackling these issues with federal government support. Acidification from carbon pollution could pile onto this effect, possibly leading to slower growth rates plus increased die-offs of coastal species.
All the stakeholders at the North Carolina workshop were concerned because marine creatures like crabs and oysters provide jobs and revenue to coastal communities, create habitat for fish, and filter excess nitrogen and phosphorus from local waterways. But this group moved quickly from concern to action. Some of the leading ocean acidification researchers in the state underscored that more data is needed to determine whether acidification of North Carolina’s bays, estuaries and ocean coasts has been increasing, what those impacts might be to marine species, and what to do about it. As a result, after the day-long discussion, the attendees are now initiating some pilot water chemistry monitoring projects to expand the existing monitoring and modeling efforts. Ocean acidification action in North Carolina is lifting off rapidly!
How acidification plays out in bays and estuaries around the country is something I’ll be discussing more. As North Carolina and Virginia aim to increase their production of oysters, the concerns over acidification and runoff pollution will grow. But in the spirit of the Wright brothers’ bold ambition, the region’s appetite for innovation will likely win out. And I’m betting our stakeholders will soon be offering lessons on how to create pilot monitoring programs!