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Beyond the Scary Statistic: Real People and Places Impacted by Ocean Acidification

Posted On November 18, 2013 by

fisherman holding Alaska king crab

Photo: Boris Kasimov via Flickr

There’s another big story out today about ocean acidification. Scientists are saying acidification could increase by 170 percent by 2100; another headline reads “ocean acidification set to spiral out of control.” These stories are from a new report released today at the climate talks happening this week in Warsaw, Poland. Big numbers, big meetings. But are there stories behind these scary headlines?

Let’s break it down:

  • The report says that the ocean is already 26 percent more acidic than it was prior to the Industrial Revolution. So what? Well, this increase in acidity has resulted in major losses at oyster farms, particularly in the Northwest. Taylor Shellfish and Whiskey Creek Hatchery had losses of up to 80 percent at their operations, before scientists figured out it was ocean acidification that made baby oysters (scientists would correct me and call it larvae) unable to grow their shells.
  • The report also says that the ocean will likely be 170 percent more acidic by 2100. That’s a big number. In people terms, that could spell big trouble for Alaskan king crab fishermen. Dr. Chris Long at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studied juvenile king crabs in acidity levels that correspond to what is predicted for 2100. After three months, there was 100 percent mortality. This explains why crab fishermen are “scared to death,” as featured in The Seattle Times’ excellent series on acidification. King crab is worth millions of dollars every year—and that’s just the fishery.
  • The ocean is acidifying at a rate faster than any time in the last 55 million to 300 million years. What does that mean? Well, we know the ocean has been more acidic in the past (like during the Cretaceous Period) and that some marine animals thrived during that time. But what is so concerning to scientists is that acidification today is happening so quickly that many animals may be unable to evolve or adapt quickly enough. Research has shown that in increasingly acidified water, clownfish (yes, Nemo) are unable to discriminate between friend and foe—in other words, they may swim toward predators instead of dashing back to hide in an anemone when danger lurks. Nemo is not going to be able to evolve overnight, and neither will many other creatures that will be impacted by this chemistry experiment happening in the ocean.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission’s webpage hosting the report says that “reducing carbon dioxide is the only way to minimize the risks [of acidification].” While this is true—we need to reduce carbon pollution going into the atmosphere (and in turn, the ocean) to truly tackle acidification—it’s only part of the story. States are doing what they can, right now, to address this problem that threatens jobs and livelihoods of people that depend on a healthy ocean.

  • This month, California, Oregon and Washington will convene a crackerjack group of scientists to figure out what information the West Coast needs to continue its efforts to address ocean acidification. They are leading the way on state approaches to tackling a big, thorny problem and can serve as a model for other states ready to do the same.
  • Maine is considering establishing a panel (similar to what Washington state convened last year) to address ocean acidification. In June, the state passed a resolution identifying acidification as a major threat to its coastal economy, communities and way of life.
  • It’s not a state initiative and it was announced in September, but it bears repeating—the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health Prize is a $2 million competition to develop breakthrough sensors that improve our understanding of, and responses to, ocean acidification. And today, Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK) are holding a House briefing on the role technology can play in addressing acidification.

Are any of these efforts going to solve ocean acidification in one fell swoop? No. But they will make a difference in the places where acidification is impacting people’s businesses and livelihoods. Sometimes, that’s not as exciting as a big, scary headline. But it’s worth reporting, and remembering, that behind every big global statistic, there are real people and real places being impacted—and that we all have a role to play in solving these problems.