Conversations on Washington's Future
How Can Washington Respond to the Threat of Ocean Acidification?
Message from the Director
Ted Sturdevant, Ecology Director
In December, Governor Gregoire launched the
Washington Shellfish Initiative to protect and restore Washington’s shellfish and promote “clean water” jobs.
As part of that initiative, a Blue Ribbon Panel was formed to focus on a problem that is impacting Washington now, and will do so into the foreseeable future: the growing acidity of our marine and coastal waters.
The panel — the first of its kind in the nation — includes science experts, federal and state policy makers, tribal leaders, Washington’s shellfish and fishing industries, non-profit environmental organizations and others. Its purpose is to develop recommendations on what our state can do to respond to ocean acidification and reduce its harmful effects on Washington’s ecosystem and
This is a huge concern. Washington’s shellfish industry leads the nation in the production of farmed oysters, clams and mussels. It employs thousands of people and contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the state economy.
Shellfish are a cultural icon of our state and a key indicator of the health of Puget Sound and the ocean. Even if you don’t like to eat oysters, consider this: some of the creatures that use calcium for their shells – like small sea butterflies, copepods, krill and crabs – are a critical link in the food chain. They provide food for herring, smelt and other small fish, who in turn are eaten by larger animals. What happens to the sea’s smallest creatures directly or indirectly impacts species such as salmon, ling cod, halibut and whales.
Animals that use calcium compounds in building their skeletons — like coral — also provide habitat for other sea life.
At the panel’s initial meeting, members got a crash course in why we need to take ocean acidification seriously, and why Washington shellfish are especially vulnerable.
For millions of years, the ocean has been slightly alkaline, around 8 on the
pH scale. Many of the organisms used to living in these waters use a form of calcium to build their shells.
Since the industrial age, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air has greatly increased. The ocean absorbs about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. This has helped buffer the impact of climate change, but it creates another serious problem.
When carbon dioxide mixes with salt water, a chemical reaction takes place: the ocean becomes more acidic. While the level of acid we are talking about may seem relatively weak – about what you’d find in human blood — it makes calcium less available to creatures that need it.
Species like the Pacific oyster are especially vulnerable during the earliest stages of their development, because the acidic water interferes with their ability to form shells.
Shellfish producers are seeing the impact of this firsthand. In an article for the American Fisheries Society dated September 7, 2011, one of Washington’s primary shellfish growers relates that the West Coast has seen a
20 percent decline in oyster production over the past five years, due at least in part to the increasing acidity of our marine waters.
Carbon dioxide from emissions is one reason for the rising acidity of water. Carbon dioxide is also released into the water when organic matter like marine algae decomposes. Algae are small organisms that thrive when there is sun and nutrients such as nitrogen from fertilizers
or polluted runoff from the land. When conditions are right, the algae grow rapidly or “bloom.” While they are alive, they actually consume carbon dioxide and provide oxygen as a byproduct. But when they die, they sink to
the bottom where they are consumed by bacteria – and then, the carbon that was stored in their bodies is released. This depletes oxygen and makes the water more acidic.
The Pacific Northwest is also affected by upwelling. That’s when our winds push the surface water away and draw colder, more nutrient rich – and more acidic – water from the depths up to the surface. It’s important to note the water that is reaching our coast now through upwelling was last on the surface about 50 years ago. Because of this lag time, and given how carbon dioxide emissions have increased over the past half-century, ocean acidification may become an even bigger problem in the years to come.
The combined effects of low-oxygen zones, upwelling, increasing carbon emissions and nitrogen-fueled algal growth mean that Washington is likely to see the impacts of ocean acidification on marine organisms earlier than other coastal areas.
Areas where the sea naturally doesn’t circulate very well, like Hood Canal, experience even lower oxygen levels and higher acidity.
The ocean has been this acidic before — millions of years ago — but the rate at which the ocean’s pH is changing is unprecedented. If species can’t adapt quickly enough, then life in the ocean will change.
What can our state do to protect Washington shellfish and other coastal resources that depend on healthy water? The panel’s first charge is figuring out what we need to learn. What do we know already, and what important information are we missing that will help us make the best possible decisions for both our environment and the economy?
Then we will turn our attention to what we can do about it. For that, we will look at all the tools we have in the toolbox. What policies and laws are already in place that may help us address the problem? Are we using technology as effectively as possible? Are there things we can be doing now, individually or in partnership with others, that will make a difference?
As a start, there are things we can do now to reduce the amounts of nutrients and polluted runoff flowing into Puget Sound. Tips on how you can help are posted on our “Washington Waters - Ours to Protect” webpage.
There will undoubtedly be more questions than answers during the panel’s short-term work. The panel’s recommendations are due to the Governor, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other policy makers by October 1, 2012.
I encourage you to follow our progress. The panel’s first day-long meeting has been condensed to two videos, which run about two hours long each. The material is gripping, and the time spent well worth it. You can view them at: Introducing the Blue Ribbon Panel and
Presentations: "Update on the Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification" and "Looking Ahead: Future Meetings, Scoping of Tasks, and other Matters"
For more information:
Ocean Acidification — Science & Actions in Washington State
TVW video clips of the first meeting of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification:
Washington Shellfish Initiative
For tips on how you can help: Washington Waters: Ours to Protect
Read More Conversations...
To receive alerts every time a new message is posted: RSS
Follow these messages on Facebook, and search #ECOnverseWA on