One of the first and most frequent rebuttals to environmental concerns is based on finances: Can we afford the solutions? Therefore, we'll begin this discussion of ocean acidification — admittedly a complex and still murky issue — by focusing on the financial aspects.
Washington state leads the nation in production of farmed shellfish, providing 85 percent of sales on the west coast, including Alaska. The shellfish industry contributes $270 million annually to our state's economy and supports 3,200 jobs. It also contributes to tourism, as you know if you've ever dug razor clams on the coast. The impact of rising levels of acid in the ocean was dramatically illustrated between 2005 and 2009 with massive loss of oyster larvae in Northwest hatcheries, including the 2005 failure of larvae at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchers on Netarts Bay near Tillamook, Ore.
The good news is that Washington state also leads the nation in research and advocacy on this issue, evidenced by Tuesday's report from a panel of experts and stakeholders appointed 10 months ago by Gov. Chris Gregoire. The first of its kind at such a high level of state governance, the report includes 42 wide-ranging recommendations. Those include specifics such as increasing seaweed farming to remove carbon dioxide from ocean waters, and generalities such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Back to the basic question: How much will all this cost? No one knows for sure. Gregoire says she has included $3 million in her proposed budget for Department of Ecology work on reducing ocean acid levels, but her term expires next month. Gov.-elect Jay Inslee has emphasized carbon reduction, but has not given details about funding research on ocean acidification. Despite fiscal uncertainties, we are encouraged by two aspects of the panel's report:
It proves the Department of Ecology recognizes the problem as serious, especially in our state where, according to the DOE: "Coastal upwelling brings cold, salty water that is rich in carbon dioxide and low in pH to Washington's coast and eventually into the Puget Sound."
A heavy emphasis is placed on research, which will answer crucial, lingering questions. Gregoire proposes a new center for ocean acidification at the University of Washington, paid for by existing taxes on hazardous substances.
Richard Feely of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was quoted in an Associated Press story: "We're still struggling with what we know and what we don't know about the biological impacts. We do know a whole lot about what happens to oyster larvae. We now need to have a better understanding of how the changes are taking place at the very bases of the food chain and how those changes permeate through the food chain up to fish and birds and mammals."
And that's the most troubling part of ocean acidification: It threatens virtually every living creature on, under or above the ocean surface. Four years ago, we editorialized: "If corals, plankton and tiny marine snails can no longer form properly, scientists say the whole food chain could be disrupted. … Salmon, mackerel and whales, watch out. And beware commercial fisheries and communities dependent on maritime resources."
Which brings us back to the financial aspect of this environmental issue. Can we afford the solutions? A more pressing question is: Can we afford not to aggressively tackle the problem?