Blog Post
by Liz Whiteman / California Ocean Science Trust

Getting Serious About the Ocean’s Invisible Threat

February 26, 2014

This post first appeared February 4, 2014 in The California Majority Report.

Liz Whiteman

Many factors influence the health of the ocean, but one making waves of late is ocean acidification. It is human nature to fear what we do not adequately understand, and there are lots of things we don’t understand about the current shifts in ocean chemistry. We are only now coming to grips with the scale and potential impacts of ocean acidification – a shared challenge along the West Coast and beyond that will require collaboration across national, state and provincial boundaries.

The challenge is large, but not insurmountable. Our path forward is to work across traditional boundaries:

  • to link ocean chemists with ecologists and biologists to understand the potential impacts to our shellfish and finfish fisheries
  • to draw on and leverage our investment in a statewide network of MPAs as places to learn and adapt
  • to collaborate on cross-cutting state and federal policy.

The jigsaw pieces are there…we need to piece them together into a shared picture of how to respond.

In fall 2013, the California Ocean Protection Council announced the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel (www.westcoastOAH.org) to provide decision makers with the information needed to evaluate and develop action plans for these difficult issues. As the name suggests, the panel is not solely focused on acidification, but is also examining hypoxia – the phenomena of very low oxygen levels in seawater that has resulted in large-scale die-offs of crabs and other species along the West Coast. These two processes are coupled, and it makes sense to consider them together.

What is it?

Ocean acidification is the lowering of ocean pH as a result of absorbing CO2. It has generally been considered a global phenomenon, as elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations are absorbed by surface oceans. However, we’re increasingly learning that this is also a local issue. From nutrient runoff from farm and lawn fertilizer causing plankton blooms, to upwelling – the natural process that brings cold, low pH water from the depths to surface ocean waters – patterns of acidic or low oxygen waters are complex and dynamic.

There are few places where this is as evident as along the Pacific West Coast. Upwelling hotspots along our coastal oceans bring nutrient rich waters to the surface, making our nearshore marine environments among the most productive in the world. But these nutrient rich waters are also more acidic. The combined effect of upwelling, increased atmospheric CO2 and nutrient runoff is locally acidified waters that are problematic for many of the species that live here. From Taylor Shellfish Farms in Puget Sound, Washington, to Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Tillamook, Oregon, aquaculture facilities and nearshore habitats have experienced catastrophic deaths of larval oysters that are best explained by naturally occurring upwelling events intensified by ongoing acidification and water quality changes to near shore environments.

A coast-wide approach

So how do we respond to an issue that is local, regional and global? The West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel is designed to provide the science that helps us to do just that. The panel includes 20 scientists with diverse interdisciplinary expertise. Individually, panel members are developing some of the critical knowledge on seawater chemistry, ocean circulation, and biological and ecosystem responses that are helping to deepen our understanding of these complex issues. By connecting their own research with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries, and to the worlds of policy and management, the panel is bringing together a body of science knowledge upon which effective management actions can be based.

We have a solid foundation on which to build. Beginning with the work of the Washington State Ocean Acidification Blue Ribbon Panel, my fellow panelists and I are committed to fostering shared learning and a West Coast-wide dialogue on how to respond at local scales to a large and small scale issue.

The panel has also garnered attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) as they look at the west coast as a model to inform their own efforts to address ocean acidification at the national level. We have an opportunity to get ahead of these issues in advance of major impacts, and coordinate ocean resource management among state, regional and federal institutions.

What’s already being done?

Action is already taking place. The West Coast Governors’ Alliance on Ocean Health is pursing ocean acidification as a priority ocean health issue. The Ocean Margin Ecosystem Group on Acidification (OMEGAS) are among a host of research programs currently underway, and the California Current Acidification Network (C-CAN) brings industry, resource managers and scientists together on this issue.

In California, the state’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs) gives us a head start. “Putting the MPAs to work” for the state not only saves time and money – it also delivers better results. MPAs serve as living laboratories, removing some variables, such as fishing, to better identify what role OA plays in marine ecosystems. As we move into long-term monitoring of the MPAs, we are exploring shared questions and key research priorities that are important to local communities. Observations of key physical, chemical and biological parameters, both inside and outside of MPAs, can support management efforts at the state and federal levels to predict how marine ecosystems will respond and develop management strategies for adapting to the consequences of ocean acidification.

Looking Ahead

As a member of the panel, I am optimistic that we can succeed in developing timely, relevant, and useful contributions to the ongoing work of managing our coastal ocean. I hope my colleagues in ocean management & policy will contribute their ideas, concerns and questions as well, to ensure the dialogue is as relevant and useful as possible.

Ocean acidification is already playing a major role in determining the future of the ocean. The choice before us is how we respond – and this panel can help direct our approach for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

Dr. Liz Whiteman is the Program Director for the California Ocean Science Trust, a non-profit organization that links science with policy for informed ocean resource management in California.

 

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