Panel: Ocean acidification threatening sea life here

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Acidification of the world's oceans could have a profound effect on the North Olympic Peninsula, a panel of experts told Clallam County commissioners Monday.

Caused by carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, ocean acidification can destroy shells of crabs, clams, oysters and scores of creatures at the bottom of the food chain.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and outer coast of Washington are particularly vulnerable because acidic water is upwelled off the coast every spring and summer.

The state supports 42,000 jobs in the seafood industry.

“There is no silver bullet,” said panelist Eric Swenson, Seattle-based communications and outreach director for the Global Ocean Health Program.

'“It's a whole number of lead bullets that are going to make this happen.”

Swenson was joined by members of the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, which recently reported that 80 percent of the oyster larvae in some hatcheries were killed by acidification.

The Clallam Marine Resources Committee invited the governor-appointed panel to speak at the commissioners' work session.

The same panel was scheduled to make a presentation at the Port Angeles Senior Center Monday night.

After the work session, Swenson said that raw sewage from Victoria is not contributing to acidification in the Strait.

“There is no real effect on the quality of ocean water that comes out of Victoria,” he said.

“If there were 10 Victorias, maybe there would be a problem. But the power of the currents and what comes through, they've got a good cause for the fact that they're not causing any harm to the ocean.”

Ed Bowlby, a marine resource committee member and research coordinator for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, said that “it may be a different story” on the north side of the Strait, adding: “We haven't seen any effects here.”

Brad Warren, director of the Global Ocean Health Program, used his time to summarize the panel's work and present its recommendations.

Swenson said there is little doubt that ocean acidification is being caused by humans.

“Just like DNA evidence, there are fingerprints left on the isotopes, and the ratio between carbon 12 and carbon 13 is definitive,” he said.

“It shows that this came from burning fuel, and therefore our fingerprints are all over the carbon.”

The water being upwelled off the coast came from the surface of the South China Sea about 40 years ago.

“We've got 40 years or so of bad water ahead of us, or increasingly bad water, because of our increasing emissions of COČ,” Swenson said.

“We can't do anything about that except strive to protect the resources we have, and try and adapt to what we know is coming our way. What we must do, on the big problem, is reduce our COČ significantly.”

Acidification is measured on a pH scale of 0 to 14, with neutral water being a 7 and battery acid rating 0.

“We're are [at] about 8.1 right now,” Swenson said.

“Before they started out with the industrial revolution, they were about 8.2. That seems like a minuscule drop, but this is a logarithmic scale. So that drop of 0.1 percent equals a 30 percent increase in acidity.”

A University of Washington professor began studying the effects of acidification at Tatoosh Island about 30 years ago.

In 2000, the work was passed onto researchers from the University of Chicago, who became “alarmed at what they're finding,” Swenson said.

The panel found that more than 30 percent of the marine species in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound are vulnerable to acidification.

“The calcifiers are the first to be hit,” Swenson said.

“In addition to the disruption of the food chain, there is a direct effect on fin fish.”

Among the vulnerable species is the pteropod, a shelled snail whose demise would cause “important ripple effects on the wider food chain,” said Nina Bednarsek, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist.

“This would be one of the first species to be severely affected by the ocean acidification,” Bednarsek said, while showing slides of rapidly deteriorating pteropod shells.

Other speakers included Betsy Peabody, founder of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and John Forster, a Port Angeles consultant who is exploring seaweed aquaculture as a means to “make a meaningful contribution to the food supply” while reducing local carbon levels.

Former Gov. Christine Gregoire appointed the 28-member panel on ocean acidification in February 2012.

To see its findings and 42 recommendations, which were presented in November in Seattle, visit http://tinyurl.com/oceanacidificationreport.



Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 15. 2013 6:09PM
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