When it comes to ocean acidification, the state of Washington is in damage-control mode. There is little doubt such acidification has — and will — take a toll on the state's economy; the question is, at what cost?
At stake is the state's $270 million shellfish industry — along with Alaska's $100 million king crab fishery, other Washington fisheries, and the economies of all states that are reliant upon the ocean for sustenance. Because of that, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, visited the Puget Sound region last week to talk about ocean acidification and legislation they are preparing in order to mitigate its impact. The plan would provide funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to expand a network of high-tech buoys and sensors that monitor ocean conditions.
The impetus is the fact that about 25 percent of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere settles in the ocean, and that process has been linked to decreasing pH levels in ocean water. The reduced pH levels have led to a massive die-off of oyster larvae in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, as oysters are unable to extract minerals from the water that are necessary for the formation of shells. Similar problems have been observed in Alaskan crabs and in other shellfish, and that can impact the entire marine ecosystem.
"Even the fact that salmon eat the pteropods that are now also having problems forming shells — this is a major issue for all of us," Cantwell said.
It is, indeed, an issue for all. According to NOAA, Washington fisheries generate $1.7 billion a year and sustain 42,000 jobs. Nationally, the value of commercial fishing is about $70 billion a year, sustaining 1 million jobs. And shellfish are a harbinger of a larger problem. "We are, I think, one of the first industries in the world to be affected by ocean acidification and know it," said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish in the Puget Sound region. Or, as Cantwell said: "Ocean acidification is a jobs issue. Shellfish growers are the canary in the coal mine."
The program that Cantwell and Begich plan to propose would expand a system of high-tech buoys and aquatic drones to track acidification in the ocean. When acid levels in the water are peaking, for example, oyster farmers can react quickly by adding acid-neutralizing baking soda to their water supplies. "More science, better science is good business," Begich said.
Much debate has surrounded the impact of carbon dioxide emissions and what should be done about them. Gov. Jay Inslee has made it a priority to reduce emissions in the state, but disagreement over climate change and the impact of ocean acidification persists. As early as 2005, oyster larvae in the Northwest began experiencing a large die-off, and two years ago scientists linked decreasing ocean pH levels to carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, automobiles and other human sources. "From a scientist's perspective, there is no doubt that ocean acidification is caused by the buildup of CO2," University of Washington oceanographer Jan Newton said. "Curtailing that is the No. 1 most important thing to do for ocean acidification."
In the meantime, measuring acidification and tracking acid-rich water can provide immediate benefits. Monitoring and research alone are not enough to mitigate the problems caused by excessive carbon emissions, but they can enhance understanding of such emissions and can help states adjust to that impact. For Washington and other marine-dependent states, the reality is we can pay for acidification now or pay for it later.