You never know what small action might set the course of your life. For me, it was an article placed on my bed by my father when I was 17. “The Darkening Sea,” written by Elizabeth Kolbert and published in The New Yorker in November, 2006, tells how carbon dioxide pollution is turning the ocean more acidic, with potentially huge impacts on ocean systems.
Kolbert describes how pteropods, tiny marine snails at the base of many marine food webs, begin to dissolve as the ocean becomes more acidic. An image of a pteropod, cracked and dissolving after a mere 48 hours in acidic water, became branded into my mind, and ocean acidification became an international crisis I couldn’t forget.
Ocean acidification took center stage in my life in July 2012, when I was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to travel the world alone, living as a local in countries I’d never visited before, to study how ocean acidification might affect human communities.
For the next year, I lived and worked with marine-dependent communities in Norway, Hong Kong, Thailand, New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Peru. Each day, my skin sticky with salt, audio recorder and camera in hand, I asked myself “How will ocean acidification affect this place, and these people? How will they adapt?” I spoke with all kinds of people who depend on marine harvests and reef environments. I joined shellfish farmers during harvest, worked in hatcheries and fish markets, and shadowed coral reef tourism industry representatives. I spoke with community members in towns whose entire economies are built on species at risk from ocean acidification. Ocean acidification became my life. I’d hold up the shell of a green mussel on a beach in New Zealand, or gaze at coral through my goggles in the Cook Islands, realizing that these were the very things at highest risk. While I’d always thought of ocean acidification as a global international crisis, I realized that this is an inherently local issue. Staring at these hunks of calcium carbonate, I would ask myself, “What can we do to strengthen communities until we can stop this problem completely?”
Over my fellowship year, I learned a lot. A Peruvian man selling rice and beans in a town known for its scallops taught me exactly what was at stake when he said to me, “If there are no scallops in Sechura, there is nothing.” Marine resource officers in the Cook Islands, considered by some to be the most vulnerable country in the world when it comes to ocean acidification and food security, taught me how far we have to go to educate the world’s citizens about the problem when they said, “Ocean acidification? I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what it is.” Fishermen and shellfish farmers taught me how critical the need for information, adaptation and innovation is when they told me, “We are having trouble. The water is changing, but we do not know what is happening.”
In the end, I learned how much work remains to address ocean acidification. Since arriving home I have worked on projects designed to educate and strengthen communities. With the Suquamish Tribe in Washington State, I built a database of curricular tools about ocean acidification, to help teachers bring this crucial topic into high school classrooms. I have also worked with Global Ocean Health to strengthen the ability of at-risk communities around the world to respond to ocean acidification, by giving them access to the information and technology they need to adapt. This month, I will share the lessons I learned during my fellowship at Secretary Kerry’s international conference, Our Ocean.
Here at Ocean Conservancy I will share stories from the communities around the world that I lived with, as well as stories from scientists, fishermen, and others here in the United States. These stories will highlight the cultural and economic importance of at-risk resources, the development and application of science and technology, and what is needed to push forward action on ocean acidification. Each place I visited has its own story. Collectively, these stories teach not only the challenges faced by marine-dependent communities around the world, but also potential strategies for addressing ocean acidification on both a local and a global scale.