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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Device on Ferry Hull to Aid Ocean Acidification Research

June 16th, 2014, by Charlie Bermant, The Seattle Times

A device attached to the hull of a Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry will help scientists collect data on low-oxygen water and ocean acidification

PORT TOWNSEND — The state ferries system has attached a device to the hull of the MV Salish on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route to provide data on low-oxygen water and ocean acidification from Admiralty Inlet.

“This will help us understand Puget Sound much better,” said Sandy Howard, a Department of Ecology spokesperson.

“It provides a new piece of information that we never had before and will allow us to monitor current, velocity, temperature and the flow of fresh and salt water on a long-term basis.”

During a recent servicing, Washington State Ferries crews attached the sensor, an acoustic Doppler current profiler, to the bottom of the Salish, which makes 11 daily crossings between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island.

The sensor gathers data during the crossings of the area known as Admiralty Inlet, or Admiralty Reach, the gateway to the Puget Sound, where salt and fresh water merges.

The project is a partnership among Ecology, Washington State Ferries and the University of Washington.

It is supported by a $261,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rudder-shaped device, which extends about 40 inches from the middle of the hull, both stores and transmits data, according to Cotty Fay, chief naval architect and manager of vessel design for the ferry system.

The device is expected to last at least five years and will cause the ferry to have a “very small” slowdown of about 0.5 percent, Fay said.

“Every tide is different than the one before,” Fay said. “Over a long period of time, we will get a profile of how the water moves in and out of Puget Sound.”

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Update of Fisheries Law Pits West Coast Against East Coast

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 second article.

Seattle Times. May 10th, 2014. By Kyung M. Song

The Magnuson-Stevens Act was enacted in 1976 to protect fisheries collapsing from overfishing and poaching by foreign trawlers. But the upcoming fourth reauthorization of the main federal fisheries law has split American fishing factions by coastlines.

WASHINGTON — The nation’s chief fisheries law was enacted in 1976 in a climate of alarm: the oceans were losing fish faster than they could reproduce, and most of the diminishing harvests were being scooped up by an armada of Soviet and Japanese factory trawlers.

In response, Congress passed the legislation now commonly called the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It asserted exclusive American fishing rights out to 200 miles from shore. It also entrusted the federal government to protect Alaska pollock, Atlantic haddock and hundreds of other stocks from overfishing and to guard the water’s bounty for perpetuity.

Today, the fight to ensure sustainable fisheries has turned entirely domestic.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act expired last September. Republicans in the House Natural Resources Committee and Democrats in the Senate Commerce Committee have released separate bills to update the 2006 reauthorization.

The dueling drafts have split fishing factions by coastlines. Bering Sea crabbers and West Coast commercial groundfish harvesters, for instance, want the law’s conservation measures left largely intact.

But some of their counterparts in New England and the Gulf of Mexico are demanding key changes. The collapse or overexploitation of such iconic stocks as cod and red snapper have battered their livelihoods and curtailed sport fishing, and the fishermen want more elastic mandates on overfishing and on rebuilding depleted fish populations.

Meanwhile, recreational anglers, a sizable economic force, are pressing harder than ever to amend the law to secure longer, predictable fishing seasons and permission to hook bigger trophy fish.

The schism has hardened despite — or because of — the fact that U.S. fisheries on the whole are rebounding from catastrophic overfishing that pushed some species to possible extinction.

In 2006, “overfishing was so endemic everyone realized we needed to take measurable steps,” said George Geiger, former chairman the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils responsible for overseeing the law.

“There is much more acrimony associated with this reauthorization.”

High stakes

The heightened tension reflects high stakes. Commercial fishermen hauled in $5.1 billion worth of fin fish and shellfish in 2012, the latest economic data available. That in turn generated another $34 billion in income for processors, wholesalers and all who touch the seafood on its journey to the table.

In Washington, the seafood industry supports 61,000 jobs, fourth-highest behind California, Massachusetts and Florida, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Seattle is home to major seafood processors and most of the Alaska crabbing fleet.

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Carbon taxes? Inslee wants a look

 

By John Stang, crosscut.com

Gov. Jay Inslee wants a climate change panel to consider a cap-and-trade program on industrial emissions and a carbon tax to be sent to the Washington Legislature as recommendations.

Meanwhile, the panel’s two Republican members want the economic costs of any climate change-related proposals researched before any are adopted.

The panel met Monday in Olympia with each of its five members — Inslee, two Republican legislators and two Democratic legislators  — saying what he or she wants explored more. “My concerns is that we go forward without determining the costs to the the people of Washington state of going forward,” said panelist Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

“We’re going to look for the single most cost-effective way of doing this,” Inslee said.

Inslee wants the upcoming recommendations to come with the best available estimates of how much carbon emissions each will trim from the state’s long-range greenhouse-gas picture. That is to ensure that the panel’ meets the goals set by a 2008 law.

In 2008, Washington’s Legislature set a goal of reducing the state’s greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming of emissions to 25 percent below Washington’s 1990 level by 2035 and to 50 percent below by 2050. So far, nothing has happened. Early this year, Inslee successfully lobbied the Legislature to set up a task force to map out how those goals can be reached. The task force is supposed to have recommendations for the state Legislature by Dec. 31.

“Failure is not an option to meeting these legislatively mandated goals,” Inslee said.

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What we can do about ocean acidification and climate change

This op-ed is written jointly by the CEO of one of the largest shellfish growers (a close partner in our work) and the chairman of Washington’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification:

October 9th, 2013. Special to The Seattle Times

Meeting the challenge of ocean acidification will require action at a level not yet seen from government, industry and individuals, write guest columnists Jay Manning and Bill Taylor.

The Seattle Times’ recent outstanding series on ocean acidification “Sea Change” stands as an uncomfortably vivid warning that our marine world — and the economies and lifestyles that depend on it — is under siege.

The images of coral reefs and oyster larvae ravaged by ocean acidification provide haunting notice to Northwest residents of the consequences of inaction.

Though the perils of ocean acidification are well-documented, reading this series prompted anew the questions, “What can we do and how can we prevent this from happening?”

The Pacific Northwest has some outstanding leaders and scientists on the cutting edge of addressing ocean acidification. Because of their actions, the region is not starting from square one.

The 2012 Washington State’s Ocean Acidification Blue Ribbon Panel identified a series of concrete steps that were codified in Executive Order 12-07 by former Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The Washington Legislature has also taken some critical first steps on this issue, providing funding in July to establish an Ocean Acidification Center at the University of Washington and the Washington Marine Resources Advisory Council. Created within Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, this Council, among other things, will advise and work with UW and others to conduct an ongoing analysis on the effects and sources of ocean acidification.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has taken the lead in Washington, D.C., securing federal support to help Washington’s shellfish industry monitor and adapt to the corrosive seawater conditions and making sure the nation’s top marine scientists are thinking about the next steps.

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Algae and Puget Sound Acidification Linked

The ocean absorbs a large portion of the CO2 that we release into the atmosphere from our power plants and tail pipes. But when it gets there that CO2 makes the water more acidic and less hospitable for some creatures, like shellfish. In Puget Sound some shellfish hatcheries have already lost millions of oyster larvae because of exposure to acidic water.

Ocean acidification has scientists and policymakers in the Northwest concerned. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire has convened a panel on Ocean Acidification, which met this week. Ashley Ahearn reports.

Remember those little pieces of paper you used to measure pH back in junior high school? You’d stick them into your can of coke or on your tongue and the color would tell you how acidic that liquid was?

Well if you stuck litmus paper into the world’s oceans it would come out closer and closer to the acidic side of the pH scale.

Feeley: “The acidity of the ocean has increased by 30 % over the last 250 years.”

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Marine Life on a Warming Planet

Since the beginning of the industrial era, humans have pumped increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This has led not only to a warmer climate but also to significant changes in the chemistry of the oceans, which have long acted as a sink for carbon emissions but are being asked to absorb more than they can handle. The result is ocean acidification: increasingly corrosive seawater that has already ruined many coral reefs and over time could threaten the entire marine food chain.

The State of Washington is now trying to tackle the problem in new and inventive ways. It has good reason to worry. Its economically important aquaculture industry specializes in shellfish, especially oysters. Shellfish are highly vulnerable to increased acidity, which kills them by preventing them from creating or maintaining their shells. Washington’s coastal waters are also polluted by urban and farm runoff, as well as an unusual regional threat: wind patterns that cause the upwelling of deep, nutrient-rich ocean currents loaded with carbon dioxide.

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