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Rallying to save the souring seas and the Northwest's cherished oyster harvest

How 50-year-old carbon emissions came back to ravage Northwest shellfish, how scientists and hatcheries unraveled the mystery of acid upwellings, and how a clam farmer persuaded Gov. Gregoire and the Obama administration to take action, with a little help from Ron Sims.

Sue Cudd, biologist and Whiskey Creek hatchery operator, nearly lost her business to seed-killing acidifying upwellings.

Sue Cudd, biologist and Whiskey Creek hatchery operator, nearly lost her business to seed-killing acidifying upwellings. Eric Scigliano

Whiskey Creek partner Mark Wiegardt watches the water coming into the hatchery tanks.

Whiskey Creek partner Mark Wiegardt watches the water coming into the hatchery tanks. Eric Scigliano

Jay Manning and Bill Ruckelshaus digest the findings about old emissions that pose a new marine threat.

Jay Manning and Bill Ruckelshaus digest the findings about old emissions that pose a new marine threat. Eric Scigllano

On November 9, Ron Sims threw down a world-changing challenge to a hall packed with marine scientists, resource managers, environmentalists, and the odd oyster grower. Now, unlike most politicians' rhetorical flourishes, that challenge has born fruit.

The occasion was a first-ever Symposium on Ocean Acidification convened by Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. The scientists explained what they'd uncovered about a threat that is both oceanic in scale and uniquely regional in character, which threatens the Northwest’s cherished shellfish industry in the short run and the survival of the marine biosphere and all the terrestrial life that depends on it in the longer run. 

“Okay, you’ve laid out the problem,” exclaimed Sims, the former King County executive, who’d washed up back in Seattle after a stint in D.C. and resurfaced as a marine environmental statesman. “Now tell me what we can do!” Boil it down, he pled in his most plaintive preacher tones. Cut the fancy explanations and give us political and policy types concrete steps we can take to correct it.

Last Friday, an answer arrived. A who’s who of state, federal, tribal, commercial, and scientific actors (and Ron Sims) gathered to begin hashing out a defense against an emerging threat most Americans probably haven’t even heard of: global warming’s evil twin, ocean acidification, OA for short. Gov. Chris Gregoire had chartered a new Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification to sift a flood of new scientific data and real-world experience and distill a suite of concrete policy recommendations for surviving, mitigating, and preventing acidification.

That brief and the new panel’s membership both recall the state's other marine environmental panel, the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council. Sure enough, the Partnership’s founding chair, William Ruckelshaus (also the founding administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a veteran of many other state, national, and international enviromental commissions) is once again lending his experience and gravitas as the acidification panel’s co-chair. (Jay Manning, formerly Gregoire's chief of staff and state Department of Ecology director, is the other chair, and state Natural Resources Commissioner Peter Goldmark is an unofficial third.) But there’s one key difference: Where the Partnership is an ongoing agency, attesting to the persistence of Puget Sound’s pollution woes, the acidification panel has got a tight schedule and a short deadline: to assemble its findings and policy recommendations by July, and complete its report in September.

That schedule reflects the optimistic energy that customarily greets new challenges, before reality and inertia set in. It also suggests the sense of urgency attending on this particular challenge. The reason all this action is unfolding in the Northwest is that this is where acidification is. OA may be an exotic buzzword in the American heartland and a looming but still prospective threat in most of the world’s seas. But it’s a present danger out here — and in human society the canary that’s feeling it first is an industry that’s uniquely dear to politicians and hallowed in Northwest mythology: shellfish.

To understand why, it’s necessary to consider, in broad outline, how acidification happens. (Caution: science alert.) The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, the gas produced when organic material, from coal to coffeecake, gets burned, digested, or broken down by bacteria, and which also happens to be the primary greenhouse gas in planetary warming. Phytoplankton draw it from the air, then die and sink to the bottom, and cold water can hold more CO2 than warm. So it collects in the frigid depths. Until quite recently this was widely seen as a free lunch: If we could just push more carbon down to the sea bottom, say by fertilizing massive plankton blooms, we could stave off global warming.

One problem with this geoengineering scheme: The carbon doesn’t stay at the bottom. That cold, deep water wells back up along various coastlines, including the North Pacific and the similarly situated coasts of Peru, Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand. These nutrient-rich upwellings produce those regions’ famously rich fisheries; thank them for your sardines and salmon. But they have a dark side as well. Carbon dioxide changes seawater chemistry, with dramatic effects on many living things.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Apr 6, 5:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article... And you say it so well.

"Stopping acidification will require the same simple, devilishly difficult measure as limiting greenhouse warming"

This just means - as with global warming - we are left with limited responses: adaptation and mitigation (and of course, suffering)

rpauli

Posted Sat, Apr 7, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

"(Some South Sound waterfront residents — aghast at the unscenic proliferation of oyster bags, mussel rafts, and, especially, white PVC tubing planted like military graves to protect baby geoducks — and some green groups vehemently dispute shellfish farming’s beneficent effects.)"

Reading the link, they are not just "aghast" at "unscenic prolifieration..." but the effects that poliferation has on the rest of the environment and ecology.

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 5:27 p.m. Inappropriate

No amount of conferences will solve the OA problem: http://co2now.org/

The graph of steadily increasing CO2 on that page should be the background on every electronic screen on earth. Or maybe something like this: http://basictextures.com/wp-content/maxfreesize/stone-brick/stone-brick-wall-old-yellow-00380.jpg

louploup

Posted Sat, May 26, 11:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Great public relations piece. But before we congratulate ourselves and ask for more taxpayer dollars we'd better be sure what we've created isn't a large part of the problem: genetically modified non-native "Pacific" oysters; Willapa Bay requiring large scale spraying of chemicals to get rid of non-native species we introduced and native "pests" like ghost shrimp; a belief that shellfish farming will solve water quality problems which ignores the water quality problems industrial scale farming creates, hatchery based or otherwise; and, a decreasing population of wild geoduck through harvesting (both legal and illegal) which is now challenged to naturally rebuild itself. This problem is so large everyone will have to adapt - even if that means loosing the genetically modified non-native Pacific oyster.

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