Our Deadened, Carbon-Soaked Seas

The New York Times, October 15th, 2015,

Ocean and coastal waters around the world are beginning to tell a disturbing story. The seas, like a sponge,

nytimes oa picare absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so much so that the chemical balance of our oceans and coastal waters is changing and a growing threat to marine ecosystems. Over the past 200 years, the world’s seas have absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon from human activities. Currently, that’s a worldwide average of 15 pounds per person a week, enough to fill a coal train long enough to encircle the equator 13 times every year.

We can’t see this massive amount of carbon dioxide that’s going into the ocean, but it dissolves in seawater as carbonic acid, changing the water’s chemistry at a rate faster than seen for millions of years. Known as ocean acidification, this process makes it difficult for shellfish, corals and other marine organisms to grow, reproduce and build their shells and skeletons.

About 10 years ago, ocean acidification nearly collapsed the annual $117 million West Coast shellfish industry, which supports more than 3,000 jobs. Ocean currents pushed acidified water into coastal areas, making it difficult for baby oysters to use their limited energy to build protective shells. In effect, the crop was nearly destroyed.

Human health, too, is a major concern. In the laboratory, many harmful algal species produce more toxins and bloom faster in acidified waters. A similar response in the wild could harm people eating contaminated shellfish and sicken, even kill, fish and marine mammals such as sea lions.

Increasing acidity is hitting our waters along with other stressors. The ocean is warming; in many places the oxygen critical to marine life is decreasing; pollution from plastics and other materials is pervasive; and in general we overexploit the resources of the ocean. Each stressor is a problem, but all of them affecting the oceans at one time is cause for great concern. For both the developing and developed world, the implications for food security, economies at all levels, and vital goods and services are immense.

This year, the first nationwide study showing the vulnerability of the $1 billion U.S. shellfish industry to ocean acidification revealed a considerable list of at-risk areas. In addition to the Pacific Northwest, these areas include Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and areas off Maine and Massachusetts. Already at risk are Alaska’s fisheries, which account for nearly 60 percent of the United States commercial fish catch and support more than 100,000 jobs.

Ocean acidification is weakening coral structures in the Caribbean and in cold-water coral reefs found in the deep waters off Scotland and Norway. In the past three decades, the number of living corals covering the Great Barrier Reef has been cut in half, reducing critical habitat for fish and the resilience of the entire reef system. Dramatic change is also apparent in the Arctic, where the frigid waters can hold so much carbon dioxide that nearby shelled creatures can dissolve in the corrosive conditions, affecting food sources for indigenous people, fish, birds and marine mammals. Clear pictures of the magnitude of changes in such remote ocean regions are sparse. To better understand these and other hotspots, more regions must be studied.

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New England Takes on Ocean Pollution State By State

By Patrick Whittle, Associated Press, March 30, 2015

Portland, Maine — A group of state legislators in New England want to form a multi-state pact to counter increasing ocean acidity along the East Coast, a problem they believe will endanger multi-million dollar fishing industries if left unchecked.

The legislators’ effort faces numerous hurdles: They are in the early stages of fostering cooperation between many layers of government, hope to push for potentially expensive research and mitigation projects, and want to use state laws to tackle a problem scientists say is the product of global environmental trends.

But the legislators believe they can gain a bigger voice at the federal and international levels by banding together, said Mick Devin, a Maine representative who has advocated for ocean research in his home state. The states can also push for research to determine the impact that local factors such as nutrient loading and fertilizer runoff have on ocean acidification and advocate for new controls, he said.

“We don’t have a magic bullet to reverse the effects of ocean acidification and stop the world from pumping out so much carbon dioxide,” Devin said. “But there are things we can do locally.”

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration says the growing acidity of worldwide oceans is tied to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and they attribute the growth to fossil fuel burning and land use changes. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased from 280 parts per million to over 394 parts per million over the past 250 years, according to NOAA.

Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, and when it mixes with seawater it reduces the availability of carbonate ions, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said. Those ions are critical for marine life such as shellfish, coral and plankton to grow their shells.

The changing ocean chemistry can have “potentially devastating ramifications for all ocean life,” including key commercial species, according to NOAA.

The New England states are following a model set by Maine, which commissioned a panel to spend months studying scientific research about ocean acidification and its potential impacts on coastal industries. Legislators in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are working on bills to create similar panels. A similar bill was shot down in committee in the New Hampshire legislature but will likely be back in 2016, said Rep. David Borden, who sponsored the bill.

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Washington’s Promising Pollution Story Starts With Oysters And Ends With Victory

ThinkProgress.com, by Natasha Geiling

Oct 28th, 2015

When Alan Barton first arrived at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in 2007, he wasn’t expecting to stay very long. The hatchery — the second-largest in the United States — was in trouble, suffering from historically high mortality rates for their microscopic oyster larvae. But Barton knew that in the oyster industry, trouble is just another part of the job.

As manager of the oyster breeding program at Oregon State University, he had already helped one oyster larvae breeding operation navigate through some tough years in 2005, when a bacterial infection appeared to be causing problems for their seeds. To combat the issue, he had created a treatment system that could remove vibrio tubiashii, an infamous killer in the oyster industry, from the water.

Barton made the winding two-hour drive up the Oregon coast from Newport to Netarts, thinking his machines could easily solve whatever was plaguing Whiskey Creek. But when Barton’s $180,000 machine turned on, nothing changed. The hatchery was still suffering massive larvae mortality — months where nearly every one of the billions of tiny larvae housed in the hatchery’s vast network died before it could reach maturity.

Two-hundred miles up the coast in Shelton, Washington, Bill Dewey was also stumped. As director of public affairs for Taylor Shellfish, the country’s largest producer of farmed shellfish, he couldn’t figure out what was causing the hatchery’s tiny larvae to die in huge numbers. He knew aboutvibrio tubiashii, so when the die-offs began, Dewey called Barton and asked if they could install his machines at Taylor Shellfish’s own hatchery in the Puget Sound. And like at Whiskey Creek, the machines did little to stop the mysterious waves of death that were consuming the hatchery’s oyster larvae.

Back in Oregon, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-vessel rocked by persistent summer winds was approaching Newport. Dick Feely, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, was just halfway through the first-ever survey meant to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the surface waters of the Pacific Coast. Already, he could tell from the few samples they had collected that he and his team had the material for a major scientific paper. He called his boss at NOAA to tell him that there was something wrong with the water. It seemed that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, propelled by the burning of fossil fuels, was also increasing the acidity of the water.

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Acid Seas Threaten Creatures that Supply Half the World’s Oxygen

Ocean acidification is turning phytoplankton toxic. Bad news for the many species – us, included – that rely on them as a principal source of food and oxygen.

June 16th, 2014 By Martha Baskin and Mary Bruno, crosscut.com

What happens when phytoplankton, the (mostly) single-celled organisms that constitute the very foundation of the marine food web, turn toxic?

phytoplankton pseudonitzschia_Their toxins often concentrate in the shellfish and many other marine species (from zooplankton to baleen whales) that feed on phytoplankton. Recent trailblazing research by a team of scientists aboard the RV Melville shows that ocean acidification will dangerously alter these microscopic plants, which nourish a menagerie of sea creatures and produce up to 60 percent of the earth’s oxygen.

The researchers worked in carbon saturated waters off the West Coast, a living laboratory to study the effects of chemical changes in the ocean brought on by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. A team of scientists from NOAA’s Fisheries Science Center and Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, along with teams from universities in Maine, Hawaii and Canada focused on the unique “upwelled” zones of California, Oregon and Washington. In these zones, strong winds encourage mixing, which pushes deep, centuries-old CO2 to the ocean surface. Their findings could reveal what oceans of the future will look like. The picture is not rosy.

Scientists already know that ocean acidification, the term used to describe seas soured by high concentrations of carbon, causes problems for organisms that make shells. “What we don’t know is the exact effects ocean acidification will have on marine phytoplankton communities,” says Dr. Bill Cochlan, the biological oceanographer from San Francisco State University oceanographer who was the project’s lead investigator. “Our hypothesis is that ocean acidification will affect the quantity and quality of certain metabolities within the phytoplankton, specifically lipids and essential fatty acids.”

Acidic waters appear to make it harder for phytoplankton to absorb nutrients. Without nutrients they’re more likely to succumb to disease and toxins. Those toxins then concentrate in the zooplankton, shellfish and other marine species that graze on phytoplankton.

Consider the dangerous diatom Pseudo-nitzschia (below). When ingested by humans, toxins from blooms of this single-celled algae can cause permanent short-term memory loss and in some cases death, according to Dr. Vera Trainer, an oceanographer with NOAA’s Fisheries Marine Biotoxins Program. Laboratory studies show that when acidity (or pH) is lowered, Pseudo-nitzschia cells produce more toxin. When RV Melville researchers happened on a large bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia off the coast of Point Sur in California, where pH levels are already low, they were presented with a rare opportunity, explains Trainer, to see if their theory “holds true in the wild.”

Multiple phytoplankton populations became the subjects of deck-board experiments throughout the Melville’s 26-day cruise, which began in mid-May and finished last week.

Another worrisome substance is domoic acid, a neuro-toxin produced by a species of phytoplankton. Washington has a long history of domoic acid outbreaks. The toxin accumulates in mussels and can wind up in humans. “Changes in the future ocean could stimulate the levels of domoic acid in the natural population,” says Professor Charles Trick, a biologist with Western University in Ontario, and one of the RV Melville researchers. Which means that the acidified oceans of tomorrow could nurture larger and more vigorous outbreaks of killer phytoplankton, which could spell death to many marine species.

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The Magnuson Act: It’s a Keeper – Commentary

Two recent articles have come out based on a paper co-written with one of our board members, Suzanne Iudicello, and our Director, Brad Warren. This is the first article.

Rollcall.com. May 7th, 2014, By Eric Shwaab and Bill Hogarth

Healthy oceans and well-managed fisheries improve coastal economies, enhance recreational fishing opportunities and provide fresh, local seafood to consumers. And while many fisheries around the world are in serious decline, the United States benefits from one of the most sustainable and profitable fisheries management systems in the world. It is a system that is built on sound science and incorporates strong local input from fishermen and others. Under current law, our management practices are rebuilding many depleted stocks of fish and ensuring a sustainable fishing future for fishing communities long struggling with a variety of economic and environmental challenges.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, introduced in 1976, which has been at the center of much of this progress, is presently before Congress for reauthorization. Initially, the law used subsidies and other programs to provide access to and manage what was perceived as a near-limitless supply of fish. Over time, however, many of our iconic fisheries — such as the New England cod and Gulf of Mexico red snapper — became severely depleted. In response, fishermen, conservation groups and congressional leaders came together in 1996 and again in 2006 to improve the law and protect our fishermen’s livelihoods. These changes formed the foundation of our current sustainable fisheries management system.

As former directors of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, we were both fortunate to have been present and helped implement these key bipartisan reforms to the Magnuson Act. These reforms have demonstrably improved the health of our oceans, sustainability of our fish stocks and the viability of many local fishing economies. We especially appreciate the hard work of fishermen, regional fishery managers, scientists, and conservation groups who continue to implement these policy advances on the water.

Overfishing (catching fish faster than they can reproduce) is now at an all-time low, and both 2011 and 2012 saw record recovery of depleted fish stocks. A recent status report detailed a total of 34 species have been returned to healthy levels in the past 13 years, including scallops, whiting and king mackerel. All fish populations in the United States are now managed under science-based plans. The act also has safeguards against overfishing and long-term depletion. And we know these plans are working: Recent analysis shows that 90 percent of fisheries have successfully stayed within science-based catch limits.

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New Ocean Acidification Study to Launch in Prince William Sound

AOOS.org, By Darcy Dugan, April 29th, 2014

Beginning this week, two surface wave gliders, resembling yellow surfboards, will be cruising around Prince William Sound as part of a five-month monitoring program to measure ocean acidification. Simultaneously, state-of-the-art instrumentation installed on a glacier tour boat will monitor glacial runoff while an underwater autonomous glider will patrol beneath the surface looking for plumes of water that could be harmful to some species.

A remote-controlled glider, similar to the one shown here, will measure ocean acidification in Prince William Sound from May to September. Photo credit: Richard Feely, NOAA/PMEL

A remote-controlled glider, similar to the one shown here, will measure ocean acidification in Prince William Sound from May to September. Photo credit: Richard Feely, NOAA/PMEL

The project, funded mostly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Acidification Program, is led by Dr. Jeremy Mathis of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and Dr. Wiley Evans from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Ocean Acidification Research Center in partnership with the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS).

Scientists estimate that the ocean is 25% more acidic today than it was 300 years ago, largely due to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels and changes in land use. Almost half of the CO2 emitted remains in the atmosphere, with the land and ocean absorbing the rest. When the ocean absorbs CO2, its pH balance changes through a process called ocean acidification. Because cold water can absorb more CO2 than warm water, acidification can disproportionately impact coastal regions around Alaska.

Recent publications by Dr. Mathis and Dr. Evans have shown that the process of ocean acidification may be worsened around tidewater glaciers due to the freshwater melt plumes that occur is summer and fall. “The glacier melt plumes have some really unique chemistry that can exacerbate ocean acidification and impact the environment in Prince William Sound and out into the Gulf of Alaska,” Mathis said. “Our goal is to use the latest technology to find out what’s happening so we can communicate that to Alaska residents and stakeholders.”

According to AOOS Executive Director Molly McCammon, the research effort builds upon the partnership developed with the OA Research Center at UAF to support statewide OA monitoring. The consortium supports five buoys around the State, as well as twice a year sampling in the Gulf of Alaska, and development of a Gulf of Alaska OA forecast model. Data from the monitoring efforts will be available on both the AOOS website and the UAF’s OA Research Center website. “With this new effort, we’re increasing our ability to view and understand Alaska’s oceans in four dimensions – two dimension space, depth and time.”

When completed in early September, the study will have provided the longest continuous observations of ocean acidification in Alaska to date. “We are very proud to have the opportunity to partner with AOOS and be the leaders in glider technology in Alaska,” said Mathis. “This work could be a game-changer in our understanding of how ocean acidification will impact our state.”

Ocean Acidification Threatens Alaska Red King Crab

Sept 16th, 2013 Undercurrent News

The very ocean that has nourished Alaska’s prized red king crabs may prove to be the species’ undoing.

New research earlier this year shows that Bristol Bay red king crab — the supersized crustacean that has come to symbolize the fortunes of Alaska’s crab fleet — could fall victim to the changing chemistry of the oceans, reports the Yakima Herald Republic.

A team of scientists fears Alaska’s $100 million red king crab fishery could crash in decades to come unless carbon-dioxide emissions reduce or the creatures acclimate to changing conditions.

That grim possibility also raises alarm about the crab fleet’s other major moneymaker, snow crab.

“With red king crab, it’s all doom and gloom,” Robert Foy, who oversaw the crab research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Kodiak, told the newspaper. “With snow crab, there’s so little known we just can’t say. But we don’t see anything from our experience that’s good for any of these crab. Some is just not as bad as others.”

There’s no evidence that souring seas have yet altered wild populations — the most corrosive seas now occur at times when red king crab aren’t as susceptible.

Read More Here

PMEL and Partners Deploy First Ocean Acidification Mooring in the Indian Ocean

Week of November 27, 2013

PMEL successfully deployed the first carbon dioxide flux and ocean acidification mooring in the Northern Indian Ocean on November 23.  The Bay of Bengal Ocean Acidification (BOBOA) mooring will help us understand the large intraseasonal, seasonal and interannual biogeochemical variations in the Bay of Bengal, and how the marine ecosystem in the Bay is changing over time.

This mooring is part of the Research Moored Array for African-Asian-Australian Monsoon Analysis and Prediction (RAMA) made possible through a close partnership with NOAA and Bay of Bengal partners.  Read more and see live data on the BOBOA Carbon website.

20 facts about Ocean Acidification

In early October, Washington Sea Grant released 20 Facts About Ocean Acidification–the product of a collaboration between WSG, NOAA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Plymouth Marine Labs and other international partners. Feedback on this initial document has helped us improve the precision of the facts, resulting in this November 2013 update:


Ocean acidification is most urgent threat to marine conservation

By Bill Dewey

November 6th, 2011

THE Taylor family has farmed shellfish in Puget Sound for over a century. The business now faces a challenge to its very existence that we didn’t even know about until five years ago: ocean acidification.

Seawater upwelling on Washington’s coast at times is so corrosive that the shells of oyster larvae dissolve faster than they can form. Recent research shows that the shifting chemistry of seawater impacts far more than oysters. Increasing acidity can deform, stunt, disorient and even kill a number of species throughout the marine food web, from tiny plankton to scallops, crabs and fish. Understanding how these corrosive waters impact the ocean’s ability to produce food is a pressing global security issue.

If we don’t begin addressing ocean acidification promptly, the future of shellfish farming and the entire seafood industry is at stake. On our current path, we are consigning our heirs to a world of increasing scarcity and conflict over ocean resources.

Are we up to it? The tools we need already exist. We can prevent many of acidification’s worst consequences by embracing proven and often profitable strategies to increase energy efficiency, manage fossil-fuel emissions and limit nutrient runoff. We can reduce harm to seafood supplies through scientific monitoring and research. These are all things we can do locally and make a difference.

In the open ocean, acidification results from emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) that mix into seawater. The oceans absorb about a quarter of the 70 million tons of CO2 we emit every day. This forms carbonic acid. The acid thins the ocean’s naturally rich soup of carbonate, the basic construction material used by many marine organisms to build shells, skeletons and reefs. Along our coasts, human activities amplify these changes by increasing runoff of soil, fertilizer and animal wastes, triggering hypoxia and acidification in many bays and estuaries where we grow shellfish.

For Taylor, acidification is not a future threat estimated by modeling or projections. It’s here now. During 2007-2009, our oyster larvae production declined up to 80 percent. Other West Coast operations were also decimated. At the Whiskey Creek Hatchery in Netarts Bay, Ore., oyster larvae dissolved in their tanks.

By monitoring water chemistry we’ve learned to avoid and buffer corrosive waters — restoring a good portion of our production, for now. We’re fortunate that we have the ability to control the seawater chemistry for our baby oysters in our hatcheries. The picture is not so rosy for critters that must survive in the increasingly acidic ocean.

At Taylor, we feel like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, with a twist: After getting knocked down, we lived to sing. Having seen the impact of high-CO2 waters we feel some responsibility to speak out and make others aware of the serious and only recently understood consequences of continued high carbon emissions on the ocean.

We are fortunate that Seattle is a hub of work on ocean acidification. An international seafood industry study group run by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership is based here. NOAA’s principal scientist on the issue, Dr. Richard Feely, is at Sand Point. The University of Washington’s Terrie Klinger leads studies on how acidification’s effects might be mitigated. Former 3rd District Congressman Brian Baird was the most knowledgeable representative in Congress on this issue and continues his interest.

All our efforts at marine conservation and resource management will prove inadequate if we don’t tackle the most basic problem of all — ocean acidification.

Bill Dewey is communications and policy director for Taylor Shellfish Farms, based in Shelton, Wash., the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the U.S.