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In Our View: Protecting our oceans protects our futures

The Columbian
Published: June 13, 2019, 6:03am

Problems caused by climate change extend beyond the forests and farmlands and natural disasters typically associated with the phenomenon. The burning of fossil fuels also leads to the acidification of oceans, and with Washington having about 150 miles of coastline, that aspect of the issue lands close to home.

Because of that, the passage of four bills last week in the U.S. House of Representatives designed to beef up research on ocean acidification is noteworthy. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, is a co-sponsor of one piece of legislation — the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act, which would direct money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation to reward competitors who find ways to better research, monitor and manage acidification.

As NOAA explains, the burning of fossil fuels increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and about 30 percent of that CO2 is absorbed by oceans. A series of chemical reactions in seawater makes the water more acidic and reduces the number of carbonate ions. “Carbonate ions are an important building block of structures such as sea shells and coral skeletons,” reads the NOAA website. This impacts oysters, clams, crabs and other creatures: “Ocean acidification is affecting the entire world’s oceans, including coastal estuaries and waterways. Many economies are dependent on fish and shellfish.”

That includes Washington. As Herrera Beutler said in a media release: “Shellfish and fishing industry jobs in Pacific County are jeopardized by the detrimental effects of ocean acidification.”

About one-quarter of the nation’s oysters, for example, are harvested in Southwest Washington, and Sarah Cooley of Ocean Conservancy told Forbes: “We first felt its effects in the mid-2000s when more acidified water caused Pacific Northwest oyster farmers to suffer drastic losses and go nearly bankrupt. Scientists later identified the threat acidification poses to other industries and the people who rely on them, including the $1 billion lobster industry in the northeast and the coral reef tourism industry of Florida.”

The Ocean Acidification Innovation Act, however, is just the tip of the iceberg — so to speak. The package of bills passed by the House and sent to the Senate represents a broad approach to the problem.

Most notable is the Coastal Communities Acidification Act to assess the impact of acidification and to help communities prepare for changes in the ocean climate. As Darcy Dugan of the Alaska Ocean Observing System told Alaska Public Media: “We like to think of ocean acidification research as putting headlights on a car. Can we look ahead to see what’s going to happen, or what might happen in the future?”

Therein lies the difficulty in drumming up support to battle climate change. Incremental changes are easy to point out, but skeptics are quick to dismiss dire predictions for the future. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, introduced the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act in 2017, co-sponsored by Herrera Beutler, but no other sponsors jumped on board and the bill did not receive a hearing. This year, it passed the House by a vote of 395-22.

The Senate should provide similar attention and give full consideration to the bills. As James B. McClintock, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, wrote for the Los Angeles Times: “Ocean acidification could cause a substantial loss of biodiversity within some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.”

That would quickly be felt by humans on a grand scale.