You might have heard the news today that the Obama Administration released its final version of a rule called the Clean Power Plan. Years in the making, this rule from the Environmental Protection Agency aims to reduce emissions from power plants – the biggest emitters of carbon pollution – by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. We hear a lot about how carbon pollution causes our planet’s atmosphere to warm, and as a result, droughts, wildfires, and extreme weather events, are becoming more frequent, dangerous and costly to Americans and many others around the world. But what does carbon pollution mean for the ocean?
When studying major global changes like warming, ocean acidification, or ocean oxygen loss, scientists often look back in the geological record to see what happened when Earth experienced similar conditions before. That helps scientists put global change in the proper perspective.
In past geological ages when volcanic activity has been high, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen and dramatically changed the Earth’s climate and ocean chemistry. Last week’s Science study focuses on one of these periods—the Permo-Triassic (P-T) boundary. It’s one of the most “rapid” releases of volcanic carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, taking 60,000 years. As slow as that seems, it’s fast for the Earth—60,000 years out of a 4.5 billion year old planet’s life is like half a day of a 100-year-old person’s life. All this volcanic carbon dioxide drove rapid ocean acidification towards the end of the P-T boundary, and a major extinction of ocean life followed. Marine life with calcified shells and skeletons, like corals, shellfish and calcifying algae, were pretty much wiped out.
This blog post was written by Benoit Eudeline, the hatchery research manager at Taylor Shellfish Farms.
Here at the Taylor Shellfish Hatchery in Washington State, we are facing real threats to our business and our livelihood.
Ocean acidification, largely caused by carbon pollution, can damage shell-building animals, like oysters, clams and mussels. Given the changes we’re seeing in the ocean, it will be increasingly difficult for these organisms to build healthy shells, and will ultimately impact their ability to survive.
We are taking action here in Washington State, but we must do more – for everyone who relies on the ocean.
Over these past three months, my blog series has taken you around the world and into the lives of marine dependent communities at risk from ocean acidification. Hopefully this journey did for you what it did for me: showed how ocean acidification has the power to alter whole communities, and how these communities are in dire need of research, guidance and infrastructure to prepare for the challenges ahead.
In 2013, I worked on a shellfish boat in New Zealand. We used hydraulic systems to lift lines of shellfish out of the water, conveyor belts to sort them, and packaged mussels by the thousands in giant, half ton sacks. A far cry from the low-tech nighttime dredging from a longtail boat I saw in Thailand.
With this technological edge, surely New Zealand shellfish farmers are less vulnerable to ocean acidification than those in regions like Southeast Asia.
But that is not what I found. I found shellfish farmers in New Zealand to be highly vulnerable to ocean acidification. This wasn’t because the country lacked the technology or knowledge to be resilient, but because that technology and knowledge wasn’t making it into the hands of the shellfish farmers.
Ocean acidification is invisible to the naked eye. It’s not something we can smell, not something we can feel with our fingers. But in many parts of the world, that’s just how fishermen and shellfish farmers assess the water they work in.
Right now, the methods we have to understand and respond to ocean acidification are expensive, requiring a lot of equipment. For example, oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest rely on ocean monitoring systems that tell them the condition of the water, high-tech hatcheries that give them a controlled environment in which to rear their oysters, and buffering systems that allow them to neutralize the water coming in and make it suitable for oyster growth.
These last two weeks, I have shared stories of how ocean acidification could affect economies around the world. These tangible impacts can be measured by changes in jobs, access to resources and overall economic condition. But what about the impacts you can’t measure? What will those changes be, and how will they affect people?
Throughout my Watson Fellowship, I sought to understand these intangible impacts. These hard-to-measure threats to things like one’s sense of place, identity and culture may not have dollar signs behind them, but to many of the people I spoke with, they were of utmost importance.
To explain this, I will share what I learned about the value of marine resources in New Zealand. There are two strong cultural lineages in New Zealand – the indigenous Maori community, and the descendants of Western settlers, who came primarily from England. Despite their distinct backgrounds, my conversations with both groups came to the same conclusion: the availability of seafood in New Zealand, particularly shellfish, is a matter of identity. If that seafood is gone, then the identity of the entire country suffers.