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Congress Needs to Carry on a Legacy of Ocean Protection

Congress has an opportunity to pass four ocean acidification bills into law.

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© Laura Knight

Bonnie Lautenberg is an artist, photographer, writer and political activist supporting candidates who care about the environment, gun control and many issues she shared with her late husband. She worked on the Toxic Substances Control Act with Senators Tom Udall and David Vitter after Senator Lautenberg passed away.

Last month, the House of Representatives took major action to protect our ocean and the communities that rely on it. It’s time for the Senate to do the same and prove to the American people that Congress cares about safeguarding our ocean.

In the early 2000s the world first noticed how changes in our ocean’s chemistry could devastate family-owned fishing and shellfish businesses as water acidified by carbon pollution killed off young shellfish. Although it’s a technical-sounding mouthful, ocean acidification is actually simple chemistry. As our ocean and Great Lakes absorb carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere, a carbonic acid is created, which gradually lowers the pH, or increases the acidity, of these natural waters. This is changing the environmental baseline for all marine life.

At the time, the federal government was not making dedicated investments to learn more about ocean acidification or the threat it posed to communities all around the country. In 2009, however, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring (FOARAM) Act, which created a comprehensive federal research program focused on ocean acidification. The FOARAM Act was a visionary piece of legislation, but it wasn’t always certain it would become law. At its passage, the bill had only seven cosponsors in the Senate. Fortunately, under the leadership of Senator Lautenberg, the bill was eventually passed into law as a part of a broader lands package.

For those who knew Senator Lautenberg, it should be no surprise that this landmark piece of legislation is a part of his legacy. From tending to maple trees he bought his wife to fighting to protect our ocean, Frank loved the outdoors. He cared deeply about the environment as a whole; worrying about clean air, clean water and toxic chemicals. He was a man who loved sailing and swimming, and loved the ocean and cared passionately about not polluting it. Throughout his entire life, environmental health drove Senator Lautenberg and fueled his passion for our planet and environment. In recognition of Senator Lautenberg’s lifelong commitment to protecting our environment and ocean, in 2016 the United States government named in his honor a new off-shore marine protected area that will preserve deep sea corals.

Fast forward to today, and we are fortunate to have in Congress many legislators—on both sides of the aisle—who are just as passionate and visionary as Senator Lautenberg when it comes to protecting our ocean. In June, the House of Representatives—for the first time since the FOARAM Act was signed into law—passed with broad bipartisan support four bills that would improve our nation’s ability to combat ocean acidification. Leaders like Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Bill Posey (R-FL), who sponsored the four bills passed by the House, have worked tirelessly to elevate ocean acidification as a critical issue for the ocean that deserves action.

These leaders give us hope that policymakers are following in Senator Lautenberg’s footsteps and leading the charge in protecting our ocean for future generations. The United States has become a world leader in ocean acidification research and monitoring. However, a lot can happen in ten years, and it’s time that Congress take action again to protect our ocean. We need to better understand acidification’s impacts to coastal communities and estuarine environments. We can incentivize technological innovation to better understand, research, monitor and adapt to acidification. And at the end of the day, we need to reduce carbon emissions that are causing ocean acidification and many other changes to the ocean and our climate.

The 116th Congress has an opportunity to cement their legacy as environmental champions by passing these four bills into law.

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