Viewpoints: Ocean acidification threatens California

Published: Sunday, Sep. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am

Making a living from the ocean is not for the faint of heart. It’s comparable to farming the soil, in that weather, disease and market conditions can make or break your bottom line. Food production, whether farming on land or in water, is dependent upon a number of factors all working in sync to produce a healthy, resilient crop. If just one factor is off, it can ruin your whole harvest.

A recently recognized threat to ocean health has the potential to do more than just inflict a bad year on shellfish producers. Ocean acidification could put us out of business permanently. Caused by activities that generate pollution from factories, cars and power plants, ocean acidification is physically changing the chemistry in the ocean. The ocean is a tremendous sponge for pollution, soaking up about 30 percent of what we put in the atmosphere. As those emissions are absorbed, it makes seawater more acidic with dire consequences to marine life, dissolving the shells of oysters, mussels and clams, and confusing behavior of fish, like salmon.

Ocean acidification is right here, right now – it’s not an abstract problem in the distant future. A recent article in Nature reported the oceans are now acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred. It’s already impacting the West Coast shellfish industry; the speed with which it is growing has stunned our industry and the scientific community.

Increasingly corrosive water has been linked to massive oyster larvae die-offs in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington state is taking the threat very seriously. This year, its Ocean Acidification Blue Ribbon Panel was established to advise and work with the University of Washington and others to understand what the state can do about acidification locally. And just last week, California and Oregon took a major step in recognizing ocean acidification by formalizing an agreement to join forces and work together to address the threat.

West Coast states recognize that ocean acidification is not just an environmental issue; it’s also an economic issue. Shellfish growers and businesses contribute a large chunk to West Coast economies; in California annual sales generate $26 million annually. Billions more yearly are generated by the state’s fishing industry. Ocean acidification has the potential to devastate our aquaculture and fishing businesses. California’s commercial fishing industry relies on a healthy ocean ecosystem to sustain the food chain that supports it. The importance of better understanding ocean acidification and taking appropriate action cannot be underestimated

Since ocean acidification has come to the forefront, much has been done to understand and acknowledge the problem. But there is much more we can do. That’s why those of us who depend on the ocean for our livelihoods are encouraging state lawmakers to delve even more deeply into the science and foster partnerships aimed toward regional and local action.

For example, Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marin County is collaborating with the University of California Bodega Marine Lab to monitor the pH balance in Tomales Bay. This partnership not only helps protect the business, it is contributing to the scientific research we hope will inform policymakers and eventually drive policy to deal with ocean acidification.

California is a state that prides itself on environmental and economic leadership. Over time, we have advanced protections for our air and water by creating innovative policies based on sound science. Ocean acidification is a major challenge for California and other coastal states, but we have hope and faith that through research, collaboration and scientifically informed action, we can tackle it before it’s too late. The economic health of our coastal communities and the survival of local shellfish companies and fishing communities depend on it.


Terry Sawyer is co-owner of Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall. Zeke Grader is executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.



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