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.
A vast range of marine organisms, from single-celled phytoplankton to corals, crustaceans, starfish, and clams and other mollusks build their shells out of calcium carbonate, which they extract from seawater. According to Bill Dewey, public policy director for Washington’s Taylor Shellfish Farms (supposedly the largest bivalve grower in the United States), these calcifying critters and others that feed on them supply 75 percent of the seafood we eat.
When carbon dioxide dissolves, it forms carbonic acid, the mild acid that gives soda water its tang — hence “acidification.” And it displaces that free-floating carbonate. Too much CO2 and too little carbonate prevents organisms from building shells and causes the shells of very young clams and oysters, which are particularly vulnerable, to melt away.
In recent years, scientists from UW, Oregon State University, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration have shown that the upwelled waters off the Pacific Coast have grown increasingly acidic (or decreasingly alkaline, another way of saying the same thing, since both are relative terms for the same pH scale we all learned about in school). The reason, it seems: The ocean’s rhythms are such that it takes about 50 years for carbon dioxide absorbed from the air to circulate through the deep and well back up to the surface.
Fifty years ago, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations had already risen around 15 percent from preindustrial levels, thanks to fossil-fuel burning and other human activities. Sunlight-blocking air pollutants — remember the haze over cities in those days? — forestalled the warming effect, but as that pollution gets cleaned up, the greenhouse effect ramps up. Atmospheric CO2 has since risen another 15 to 20 percent, foretelling even sourer upwellings in decades to come. As Oregon State oceanographer Burke Hales, one of the researchers who uncovered the acidifying upwellings, says, “We’ve mailed ourselves a package, and it’s hard to call off delivery.”
Meanwhile, something very strange and very scary has been unfolding at the Northwest’s shellfish farms and hatcheries. Willapa Bay in Southwest Washington is to oysters what Iowa is to corn: an estuary so fertile its oyster growers hardly had to grow at all. For most of the past century they relied on natural set (spontaneous spawn) rather than buying seed (infant oysters) as most other growers do. But in 2006, and each year thereafter, the set failed, and they were cast on the seed market like everyone else.
Bad timing. In 2007, oyster larvae began dying en masse at two of the three big hatcheries that supply seed for growers from Mexico to Cananda — Whiskey Creek near Tillamook, Oregon, and Taylor Shellfish’s hatchery on Dabob Bay, a small fjord off Hood Canal. The hatchery operators were stumped. At Whiskey Creek, they scoured their pipes, purging the endemic pathogens that can flare up and kill larvae, and installed pricey filtration and sterilization equipment. No luck.
Then, in 2008, Alan Barton, an engineer-turned-oceanographer working at Whiskey Creek, noticed a couple striking coincidences. The pipes that bring water from Netarts Bay to the hatchery’s tanks, normally clogged with barnacles and mussels, were now eerily clear; whatever was killing the baby oysters was hitting wild shellfish as well. Furthermore, the die-offs peaked in summer, just when the north winds pushed back the inshore waters, allowing upwelled water to flood into the bay — causing a noticeable drop in pH. Barton checked federal Coastwatch reports and, sure enough, the die-offs coincided with particularly strong upwellings.
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