Legislator hopes to save shellfish

A lawmaker hopes to use the recommendations of a state panel to deal with the increasing acidification of the Pacific and Puget Sound caused by global warming.
Crosscut archive image.

A large oyster at Dabob Bay.

A lawmaker hopes to use the recommendations of a state panel to deal with the increasing acidification of the Pacific and Puget Sound caused by global warming.

Last year, Washington came up with a tentative plan to fight the growing acidity of its Puget Sound and coastal waters — a shift that is hurting the state's shellfish harvests.

The challenge now faces the state Legislature.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas island, introduced a bill Friday to create a council to advise the state government on how to tackle ocean acidification. The bill also calls for considering the acidity of water runoff in urban planning efforts.

The main thrust of the 21-person council — state officials,legislators plus tribal, local government, environmental and marine business representatives — would be to determine how to implement an earlier panel's recommendations into action. In 2012, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed a panel of of legislators, state officials, scientists and business interests to determine if the state should worry about this issue and, if so, what should Washington do.

Ranker was on that panel. "This starts where that panel left off. ... There's no overarching body right now looking at these issues statewide holistically,"  Ranker said.

He wants the council to ensure that the many separate measures put into effect are coordinated, including distributing efforts to adequately address problems in both Puget Sound and along the Pacific Coast.

Washington is the first state to tackle ocean acidification. 

Thanks to rising acidity levels in Northwest waters, tiny oyster shells in Washington's Dabob and Willipa bays and in Oregon's Netarts Bay are crumbling faster than they can grow back; the problem has cut sharply into the most recent oyster harvests. Billions of oyster larvae have died. Scientists have pinpointed a drop in the water's pH level as the cause. The trend has two primary contributing factors: additional carbon dioxide in the air and nitrogen-laden nutrients that seep from cities, septic tanks and agriculture into the ocean.

PH measures the acidity or alkalinity of a fluid on a 14-point scale — the lower the number, the more acidic the liquid. Orange juice's pH is 3. Distilled water is considered "neutral" at 7 and sea water normally has a pH of 8.1 to 8.2, well within the narrow pH spectrum that allows shellfish to survive. At 100 feet deep, Dabob Bay water has sometimes been measured at a pH of 7.5.  Puget Sound water is often more acidic than the Pacific's waters, said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was also at Tuesday's unveiling.

Recent studies have shown scientists that not only is the acidification of ocean water increasing, but that that increase is accelerating as global warming gases build up in the atmosphere. Near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — 250 years ago — the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content has been calculated to have been roughly 280 parts per million. Today, the density of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at about 390 ppm. The increase in carbon dioxide density in the air — and in the sea — is expected to significantly accelerate this century.

The problem has a local economic component because the state's shellfish industry is one of the biggest in the world, bringing in about $270 million annually and employing roughly 3,200 people in predominantly rural areas, where jobs are often hard to come by and losses could greatly hurt local economies. 

The Gregoire-appointed panel recommended:

  • Study the relationships between the state's carbon emissions and Puget Sound's acidity. The report also recommended doing similar studies on nutrients from various uses, such as fertilizers and their effects on Puget Sound's water. Relationships between acidity and shellfish health also need expanded study. These will be expensive, and should be tackled soon, with expectations that the studies will take years.
  • Introduce legislation soon on nutrient limits for rural sewage going into or toward Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean.
  • Begin long-range studies on whether urban sewage plants and other specific nutrient-waste sources should be modified to decrease the amounts of nutrients leaving them.
  • Expand shellfish production. The state is expected to soon announce the opening of new harvest areas. Beyond those immediate new areas, however, efforts to find additional low-acid waters could be long and expensive.
  • Set up more monitoring instruments in the near future. Also, specific pH management thresholds need to be set.
  • Put a specific person in charge all the efforts, who reports directly to the governor.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8