Rapid intervention is needed to protect Pacific coastal marine life from an increasingly carbonized environment that could become unmanageable for some species, according to a new report from leading West Coast scientists.
Greater global carbon emissions into the atmosphere are absorbed by the ocean, lowering its pH balance and creating more acidic waters with less oxygen that have already proven deadly for Pacific oysters and other shellfish that lose the ability to grow shells.
Though the tide can’t be totally turned back, the report, “Major Findings, Recommendations, and Actions,” found ways to blunt the environmental and economic impact now.
The West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel, a 20-member coalition of academic researchers, asked local and state governments in Oregon, California, Washington and British Columbia to take ownership of the issue to avoid making things worse. Specifically, they recommend reducing the nutrients and pollution released into the ocean from storm drains and sewers that feed bacteria and exacerbate the problems. Increasing marine reserve areas and managing the impact to fisheries also are recommended.
“Ocean acidification is a global problem that is having a disproportionate impact on productive West Coast ecosystems,” said Francis Chan, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-chair of the panel.
“There has been an attitude that there is not much we can do about this locally, but that just isn’t true. A lot of the solutions will come locally and through coordinated regional efforts,” he said.
Ocean acidification and hypoxia — decreased oxygen — typically occur together, raising havoc in ecosystems that can’t process the increased carbon dioxide quickly enough.
Because of how the Pacific Ocean circulates, the West Coast is exposed disproportionately to water with higher acidity levels.
Already shellfish, corals and other organisms are having a more difficult time reproducing and growing their skeletons and outer protective shells. As a result, the West Coast shellfish industry is seeing high mortality rates during the early life stages when shell formation is important.
And increased acidity has shown to give rise to harmful algae blooms in the lab. The toxins can cause sickness and even death up the food chain as contaminated fish and shellfish are consumed by larger fish, marine mammals and even people.
Bruce Steele, a longtime sea urchin fisher and member of California Current Acidification Network who has researched local acidification for about a decade, said the phenomenon first hit home for local fishers in 2006, when most of the Pacific oysters living in a fish farm off the Oregon coast died. Since then, Terapods (planktonic snails) also have proven to be highly susceptible to acidified ocean waters.
“We’re still emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere at ever-increasing rates. We’ve passed 400 parts per million,” Steele said. “If we keep emitting at this rate, and even if we slow down, a good portion of the ocean will be undersaturated (in chemicals that allow for calcification) for three months at a time.”
Fishers and aquaculture farmers already have found ways to combat the problem in controlled environments like estuaries and fish farms. Those include introducing more plants to the environment because they absorb carbon dioxide and selective breeding for more hardy animals, said Steele.
“We’re going to have a lot of trouble in the open ocean,” he said. “The way we deal with environments we can’t control is we have to try to control other inputs and stresses on the environment. The first thing is to try and not emit as much CO2.”
In the report, the panel calls for actions that are coordinated and collaborative between ocean management and natural resource agencies. Its recommendations include exploring the use of sea grass to remove carbon dioxide from seawater, reducing land-based pollution from entering coastal waters and revising water-quality criteria.
“Ocean acidification is very alarming if you look at what’s going to happen to the ocean’s pH if we don’t reduce carbon emissions,” said Alexandria Boehm, panel co-chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.
The panel suggests policymakers create a West Coast monitoring program for gathering more data and create a scientific task force to help management stay effective.
“They make some really tangible recommendations that science suggests could have an impact,” said Kristy Kroeker, an expert on ocean acidification and assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz who is not part of the panel.
“The West Coast and the Monterey Bay are really sitting in a hot spot for acidification. It’s happening here twice as fast as it’s happening in the rest of the world. Understanding the problem and things we can do is really critical for our community.”
To read the report, go to westcoastoah.org/executivesummary/.
–From The Press-Telegram