Local View: We can help combat ocean acidification
Sunday, March 20, 2011
The ocean and land seem worlds apart. Creatures of the sea glide elegantly through cold, dark waters while we only catch a glimpse of this diverse place from shore. However, our activities on land, both individual and industrial, are having a direct impact on organisms in the ocean that may lead to the decline of our fisheries in the very near future.
On land, we burn fossil fuels to produce energy for our cars, homes and factories, producing carbon dioxide. Although we hear about carbon dioxide having an impact on climate change, we neglect to consider that the atmosphere interacts with the ocean over 70 percent of the earth’s surface. Just as oxygen is added to our rivers through the interaction of air and water, so carbon dioxide is added through the same process. Carbonic acid forms when carbon dioxide combines with saltwater. This acid changes the chemical composition of the ocean. These changes degrade aragonite, a substance that is used by many marine animals to form their shells. Increasing levels of acid in the ocean mean thinner shells for these animals and ripple effects on the entire food chain.
Along the coastlines of Washington and Oregon, we benefit from extensive, diverse fisheries. These stocks exist here due to upwelling, a process where deep, nutrient-rich water moves to the surface, providing fuel for the coastal food chain. However, upwelling also increases the rate of ocean acidification, placing our shellfish at risk. Research over the past five years has shown a linear relationship between the increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide and the thinning of mussel and oyster shells on our coast. The harvest of shellfish and crustaceans accounts for approximately half of the $4 billion in revenue from commercial fishing. Yet the impact is not limited to shellfish and crustaceans. The ocean food chain involves a number of plankton that build shell-like structures. These organisms initiate the food chain. They are the source of the rich diet of Pacific salmon and whiting. The survivorship of these food resources, and our fishing industry, is at great risk as ocean acidification has increased by 30 percent.
Legacy of stewardship
Although it is easiest to argue industry is responsible for this issue, we are accountable. We drive vehicles that each produce an average of 6 tons of carbon dioxide per year. We also create the demand for energy and manufactured goods. As consumers, we can make decisions that limit our need for transportation by combining errands into one trip and purchasing local products. We can decrease our demand for energy in our homes and workplaces as a portion of our local power comes from natural gas combustion that generates carbon dioxide emissions. We can support and encourage the growing use of alternative energy and fuels by our local governments and business. We can also support our state by championing the legislative effort currently under way to transition the TransAlta power plant in Centralia off of coal by 2025, making Washington coal-free.
When I explore the amazing shoreline in Washington with my children, I want to know that the diversity that exists here will continue for generations. As they run their hands across the layers of mussels adhered to the rocks or carve out a crevice to see the tiny shrimp that wash in with the surf, I want confidence that these creatures will endure. It will take each of us, as citizens of Washington, to make the small changes necessary to create a legacy of stewardship for our oceans.
A further discussion of ocean acidification in the Northwest will occur Saturday, March 26. Dr. Richard Feely of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration will present research on the effects of acidification in the Northwest along with a viewing of the film “Acid Test.” This event is free and open to the public. It will be held at the First United Congregational Church, 1220 N.E. 68th St., Vancouver at 7 p.m. with a reception starting at 6:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by Coal-Free Washington.
Rebecca Martin is a biology professor at Clark College in Vancouver.