Combating “corrosive waters” in Washington State

Posted: December 4, 2012 in Events, Policy, Science

Starting in 2005, shellfish farmers began witnessing massive die-offs of oyster larvae in their hatcheries. Subsequent research has since discovered that low-pH seawater, aka ocean acidification, was to blame. Washington’s shellfish industry generates almost $300 million and supports 3200 jobs annually. Earlier this year, Governor Chris Gregoire created the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. The panel’s goal was to investigate the causes, effects, and long-term implications of continued decreases in ocean pH around the Puget Sound area and the Pacific Northwest coast.

“Ocean acidification is a reduction in the pH of seawater for an extended period of time due primarily to the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the ocean. Local sources of acidification such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxide gases, or nutrients and organic carbon from wastewater discharges and runoff from land-based activities, can also contribute to ocean acidification in marine waters,” reads the executive summary report by the Blue Ribbon Panel. As explained in the summary, the Governor charged the Panel to:

• Review and summarize the current state of scientific knowledge of ocean
acidification,
• Identify the research and monitoring needed to increase scientific understanding
and improve resource management,
• Develop recommendations to respond to ocean acidification and reduce its
harmful causes and effects, and
• Identify opportunities to improve coordination and partnerships and to enhance
public awareness and understanding of ocean acidification and how to address it

ScienceInsider reports, “Washington State will need to respond vigorously to ocean acidification if we are going to avoid significant and possibly irreversible losses,” concluded the report from the Blue Ribbon Panel, which was co-chaired by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief William Ruckelshaus. It includes 42 recommendations for state action, including calls for stronger regulation of carbon emissions and other land-based pollutants that contribute to acidification.”

NatureNews explains exactly how dire the situation is for Washington State, “As growing carbon dioxide gas emissions have dissolved into the world’s oceans, the average acidity of the waters has increased by 30% since 1750. Washington, which produces farmed oysters, clams and mussels, is particularly vulnerable to acidification, for two reasons: seasonal, wind-driven upwelling events bring low-pH waters from the deep ocean towards the shore, and land-based nutrient runoff from farming fuels algal growth, which also lowers pH.”

In addition to the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish hatcheries, changes in pH levels can also have disastrous effects on the broader marine ecosystem, because the numerous marine organisms who rely on their ability to form and maintain shells and skeletons are food sources for larger species such as salmon, whales, and seabirds. Likewise, Washington’s tribal communities will be hard hit by continued ocean acidification as shellfish provide a source of income and food for many of these families.

Last week Governor Gregoire issued an executive order that directs numerous state agencies to begin assessing pollution issues and “advocate for reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide at a global, national, and regional level.” This work will be in collaboration with national bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. Among other items, the Director of the Department of Ecology is directed to “Coordinate effective implementation of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations” and  “Reduce nutrients and organic carbon in locations where these pollutants alone, or in combination with other pollutants, are causing or contributing to multiple water quality problems in our marine waters.” In addition, the Governor will include $3.3 million in her budget request to the legislature to implement the report’s recommendations and establish a new center for ocean acidification at University of Washington.

As ScienceInsider reports, “Those ideas are likely to be unpopular with the state’s agricultural and industrial interests. The report acknowledged that “[t]he cost of responding to ocean acidification may be substantial,” but noted that it is “still far less than the costs of inaction.” I dearly dearly hope that the legislature and lobbying groups of Washington State will be able to see past the initial sticker shock and to a solution that is both economical and sufficient in implementation of the Panel’s recommendations.

Gregoire is the outgoing Governor, so much may change under an Inslee administration. So far, Jay Inslee, who will become Governor on January 16th, has appeared supportive. The Washington Post reports, “Inslee spokesman Sterling Clifford wrote in an e-mail: “We know that the leading cause of ocean acidification is carbon pollution, and Governor-Elect Inslee is committed to reducing carbon pollution in Washington and setting an example for other states to follow.””

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