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Washington shellfish at risk

A large oyster at Dabob Bay. Credit: Hstender/Flickr

A big question mark stands over Washington's efforts to deal with ocean acidification is money: How much will be needed and where it will come from?

A state panel, the first of its kind in the nation, discussed a wide range of draft recommendations Friday (July 20) at the University of Washington. Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed the panel —a collection of scientists, shellfish industry officials, and federal and state government representatives — to recommend how Washington can tackle ocean acidification along its coasts. This is the first state effort of its kind in the nation.

Because of the rising levels of acidity, tiny oyster shells in Washington's Dabob Bay and in Oregon's Netarts Bay are crumbling faster than they can grow back. A drop on the water's pH is being pinpointed as the culprit for endangering the Northwest's $270 million shellfish industry.

PH measures the acidity or alkalinity of a fluid on a 14-point scale. The lower the number, the more acidic the liquid is. Distilled water is considered "neutral"; sea water is normally 8.1 to 8.2, which is on the alkaline side. Orange juice's pH is 3; battery acid's pH is close to a one. Shellfish survives in a narrow pH spectrum. At 100 feet deep, some Dabob Bay water has sometimes been measured at a pH of 7.5.

Gregoire's  panel is scheduled to present its fix-it recommendations to her on Oct. 1. Those recommendations will be general ones with plenty of details that will have to be later hashed out.

That includes beginning to get a handle on the funding needs, but probably not in detail, said Jay Manning and Bill Ruckelshaus, the panel's chairmen. Manning is Gregoire's former chief of staff. Ruckelshaus was the federal Environmental Protetcion Agency's first chief in 1970 and is advisory board chairman of The William D. Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington and Washington State University. (Disclosure: Ruckelshaus is also a member of Crosscut's board.)

"We'll probably have qualitative discussions about our best guesses to the costs," Manning said.

Panelist Peter Goldmark, Washington's commissioner of public lands, said, "We also want an analysis of what no action would cost."

The panel discussed potential remediation measures such as recycling old shells to provide an underwater substrate for shellfish larvae to grow in; experimenting with algae to improve water at hatcheries; and experimenting with eelgrass and seaweed in the field to help remove carbon  dioxide from the water. To varying degrees, these measures have worked or have been studied; more field work is needed to gather better evidence on their effectiveness. Other potential measures include expanding the number of pH monitors in Washington's waters; studying whether certain shellfish species perform better in specific bays and inlets; improving how water is treated as it goes into hatcheries; and collecting water and biological data in a more long-term systematic way.

Also, the panel is looking at lining up government programs, agencies, and funds that can coordinate and tackle the problem. This includes examining sewage treatment plants. To limit the discharge of nutrients into the water, where they increase acidity, setting up a system of business credits for discharges has been mentioned. Nutrient credits could be traded like carbon credits "We know nutrients are stressors of of the system, even though we can't quantify it," said panelist Ted Sturdevant, director of Washington's Department of Ecolgoy.

Another proposition before the panel is to forbid commercial and recreational vessels from discharging sewage into Puget Sound.

Some panelists wondered how far new regulations will go on fixing the overall problem; should the carrot or stick be stressed? "Regulation has not gotten us as far as we should," said Ron Sims, representing the Puget Sound Partnership on the panel.

Before Oct. 1, the panel wants to set up ways its recommendations will be addressed by the state and federal governments, environmental groups, industry and private citizens. That includes setting up written agreements among agencies, and identifying a state entity with the coordination responsibilities. "We need an insitutional approach to make sure these recommendations are listened to," Ruckelshaus said.

Also, panelists said the state's efforts need to be coordinated with worldwide ventures on studying ocean acidity. Ruckelshaus said, "It makes sense to make our results as relevant to the rest of the world as possible."

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