Donning our snorkel gear, my son and I entered the tranquil bay. We’d been looking forward to spring break in Baja Mexico and had read about this spot in the guide book. But we were soon disappointed; there were few fish to see and most of the coral was damaged or dead. The unsuspecting tourist might not notice but as a trained marine biologist I know what a healthy reef looks like. This wasn’t it.
Coral reefs are under assault. Overfishing and coastal development are partly to blame, but ocean acidification is an emerging threat to corals and a host of other species that rely on calcium carbonate for their shells. As CO2 increases in the atmosphere, it dissolves in the ocean and it is changing the very chemistry of the sea.
And it’s happening now. Just this month, a team of scientists published a study that solved the mystery of why the $278 million shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly went bankrupt in 2006. Owners of the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery on the Oregon coast wanted to know why all their baby oysters were dying. Scientists determined it was ocean acidification. Whiskey Creek is now fighting back against ocean acidification by changing how they raise oysters to avoid the highly corrosive seawater that is now bathing the Oregon coast.
Ocean acidification could do far more than just take oysters off the menu at your favorite happy hour; it may upend the world’s ocean – from the shallows to the deep – and the industries that depend on it, from seafood to tourism. Don’t take my word for it; watch the video above to hear from leading international scientists gravely concerned with this problem.
So what do we do? First, we need to better understand what is happening to our ocean. The X-Prize Foundation just announced a competition to develop new, cost effective instruments to gauge ocean acidification. But we need more: Industries dependent on a healthy ocean must lend their voice to a growing community of concerned environmental and business leaders. Decision makers need to better use existing laws to reduce other factors (like runoff from the land) that make ocean acidification worse.
Ocean Conservancy is working with leading organizations to confront ocean acidification head on. Over the coming months, we’ll profile this critical issue and our colleagues’ great work to ensure a healthy and vibrant ocean for all of us, snorkelers and shellfish farmers alike.