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.

Crosscut archive image.

The Northwest's native Olympia oyster.

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.

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.

Armed with this insight — and with sophisticated equipment, supplied by Oregon State, for continuously monitoring their water’s salinity, temperature, and dissolved carbon dioxide — the hatcheries have learned to draw water when the water’s sweet. At Whiskey Creek, that means avoiding upwellings and drawing in the afternoon, after algae have taken up some of the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, rather than in the morning when the water is most sour. Taylor now draws from the more shallow of its two pipes in Dabob Bay, at a depth of 30 feet. Taylor spokesman Bill Dewey told the acidification panel that at 100 feet, where the other pipe draws, the water can be seven times as acidic and contain nearly three times as much dissolved carbon dioxide.

Depth matters. Around the bend, in Quilcene Bay, the coast’s other big shellfish hatchery, operated by Coast Seafoods, hasn’t seen the same problems. Nor has the affiliated Penn Cove Seafoods on Whidbey Island, home of the celebrated mussels. That’s because both are located on shallow, sheltered bays protected from upwellings. But Ian Jefferds, Penn Cove’s general manager, fears it’s only a matter of time before escalating carbon emissions, cycling through the sea on a 50-year delay, hit those refuges as well: “Just because you don’t see the hurricane doesn’t mean it’s not coming.”

The new blue ribbon panel may be the most concerted effort anywhere so far to watch for that hurricane, spread the news, and prepare for the storm. The momentum for it built slowly over five years; then, five months ago, the stars aligned and it went into overdrive. Early in 2007 Brad Warren, a longtime fisheries journalist in Seattle, launched a project called the Global Ocean Health Program under the aegis of a new industry group, the Sustainable Seafood Partnership. Warren worked doggedly to persuade the fishing folk, traditionally a highly independent, close-to-the-vest sort, that trouble was coming and they should band together to avert it. Two years ago, he and the owner of one of the crab boats in TV’s Deadliest Catch lobbied the Copenhagen climate conference. A larger delegation pounded the halls of Congress.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gregoire was getting the shellfish religion, thanks in good part to Taylor's Bill Dewey. As Penn Cove’s Ian Jefferds says, “The shellfish industry is a good poster child for the marine environment.” And Dewey is a good standard bearer for the cause, with a straight-talking, informal style, a steel-trap command of the data, and the shoreline cred of an actual farmer. (He grows his own Manilla clams on Samish Bay.) Plus he speaks for five generations of Taylor family shellfish growing, in a state whose unofficial anthem, "The Old Settler," celebrates "acres of clams."

In October 2010 Gregoire and Manning stopped off at Taylor's Dabob Bay hatchery after viewing a new sewer project at Belfair. If you've never been there, believe me, it's an eye-opening spectacle, a readymade sci-fi movie set: giant translucent tanks of algae and spat, glowing in various shades of green and gold, and great tubs of spurting, sex-switching geoducks and lesser bivalves. Manning told me his eyes and Gregoire's opened wider as Dewey told them about the "seed emergency" that had slammed hatcheries and growers all along the coast, and the deep-sea upwellings that caused it. Dewey urged the governor to undertake a "shellfish initiative to bolster both the industry's and the marine environment's health.The basis for this two-fer: Filter-feeding clams, mussels, and oysters suck up the runoff and effluent-fed muck that would otherwise choke the waters. (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.)

Gregoire did more than that. She urged NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and former Oregon State professor, to do the same on a national scale. Last June NOAA announced a “National Shellfish initiative … to stimulate coastal economies and improve the health of ailing estuaries through increasing commercial shellfish production and native shellfish populations.” The Gregoire administration promptly began planning a Washington Shellfish Initiative to implement the federal project and, of course, take advantage of the funding it provided. It would expand both commercial and recreational shellfish harvesting, reintroduce native Olympia oysters and pinto abalones, streamline permitting for commercial farming (mostly of nonnative species), and advance the never-ending struggle to correct failing septic systems and pollution run-off.

Then, in November, Sea Grant held its symposium and Sims issued his plea. Brad Warren capitalized on it by circulating a draft plan for a blue-ribbon panel on acidification as part of the shellfish initiative. Hedia Adelsman, a Tunisian-born senior policy advisor at the Department of Ecology, played another key role promoting the idea. Gregoire's office took the cue and added the acidification panel to the shellfish inititiative.

While the panel made an impressive start last Friday, the question remains: How much can even the best regional collaboration, with optimal public communication, do to counter what is ultimately a global threat?

Unravelling the intricacies of ocean motion and seawater chemistry, monitoring their fluctuations, and locating and timing shellfish spawning accordingly will only buy the industry so much time. The seas’ CO2 levels have fluctuated over the eons, as has the atmosphere’s, in response to volcanism, erosion, and other geological processes. But as UW marine scientist Terrie Klinger noted at last week’s session, “the current rate of change has not been seen in at least 300 million years, since the dawn of the fishes.” And as in atmospheric warming, it’s the pace of change that overwhelms organisms’ and natural systems’ ability to adapt. Not to mention human systems’. Fish, too, are vulnerable to dropping pH; they don’t melt away like oyster larvae, but they grow less and die sooner. Sayonara, salmon.

Stopping acidification will require the same simple, devilishly difficult measure as limiting greenhouse warming: rolling back carbon emissions, and then waiting a century or two for those already released to work their way through the upwelling cycle. But while upwellings are the largest source of coastal acidification (contributing an estimated 60 to 75 percent at various spots on the Pacific Coast), they aren’t the only source. The growth and decomposition of plankton and seaweed contribute about 20 percent in Puget Sound and up to 26 percent along the Washington Coast.

They’re also the main source along the Eastern seaboard, where upwellings aren’t a factor but shellfish growers are starting to suffer dieoffs. After unlocking the mystery at Whiskey Creek, Alan Barton decided to get as far from acidic upwellings as he could. He returned to North Carolina and started an oyster hatchery. Bad timing: pH started dropping, and larvae started dying.

All this rot is nourished by the nitrates and phosphates humans blithely wash into the waters, via septic leaks, sewage outflows and overflows, fertilizer and manure, even unscooped dog poop. “These are the low-hanging fruit,” NOAA scientist Simone Alin told the panel. Local, not global, action can correct them. And any such measures will reinforce, and be reinforced by, the Puget Sound Partnership's effort.

But if the acidification campaign goes no further, or worse yet merely duplicates existing water-quality efforts, what’s the point? Ruckelshaus, who started battling stream pollution nearly 50 years ago in his native Indiana, put the question to Alin: “Will increasing upwelling from emissions overwhelm any effort at controlling decomposition?

“I don’t expect you to answer that now. I’m just asking.”

(Disclosures: Ruckelshaus is a member of Crossut's board of directors. The author spoke at the November Sea Grant symposium, on media responses to ocean acidification. This story was changed on April 5 to remove a reference to Willapa Bay as "pristine.")


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.