Ocean acidification…it’s no joke, but for some reason I can’t stop joking about it. Maybe because if I don’t, I’ll want to curl up in a corner and cry myself to sleep. Because when it comes to fisheries, ocean acidification feels a little like the rug getting pulled out from under us just as we’ve figured out how to stand. Here in the United States, we’ve finally got a good fisheries management system in place that’s starting to show results—recovering stocks, less overfishing. So now let’s change the entire chemistry of the ocean and see if we can keep up. Haha! Good one, universe.
There’s been a lot of talk about ocean acidification the last few weeks, starting with this piece by Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post. Ocean acidification is the changing pH of ocean waters as a result of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. CO2 is of course better known for causing global warming. But when we pump CO2 into the sky it doesn’t all stay in the atmosphere: vast quantities are absorbed into the sea. Climate change also appears to be leading to increases in water temperature in the ocean, spelling potential trouble for ecosystems that are conditioned to very specific temperatures. This is especially problematic for stationary species such as coral reefs, but also has wide ranging implications for the overall climate; for example, warmer ocean temperatures have been linked to stronger and more frequent tropical storms.
Scientists are using whatever resources available to them to measure climactic changes in the ocean and to try to understand their implications. When it comes to acidification, scientists know with certainty that the chemistry is changing frighteningly fast. They know less about how the ocean’s biology — including its fish stocks — will be affected.
But even if we don’t know everything that’s coming down the pipe, scientists are already seeing some all-too-concrete danger signs. One is playing out on the West Coast of the United States, where the LA Times reported this week that ocean acidification has already started killing baby oysters.
Even if baby oysters aren’t as cute as baby polar bears (except for Lewis Carroll’s oysters: I have always found them charming), this should be cause for genuine alarm. West coast shellfish industries are worried, because shellfish appear to be on the front line of species hard hit by acidification. Crabbers in places like Westport, WA and Alaska’s Bering Sea have expressed their growing worries to us directly. Biological impacts on fin-fish are further removed and less certain. But some fear that profound changes in ocean chemistry will alter the marine food web’s delicate balance, hurting these stocks too.
Scientists from around the world gathered in Monterey, CA last month to discuss ocean acidification, and it doesn’t sound like it was pretty. In addition to shellfish, they expressed fears that coral reefs would be hit hard (bad news for fish who depend on coral reefs as the ocean’s prime singles bar), and micro-organisms such as plankton and krill (also bad news for the gazillion species that rely upon them for food).
You know who does like ocean acidification though? Harmful algae and sea urchin. I always thought those guys were jerks. The LA Times reports:
“Dave Hutchins, a USC oceanographer, has found that harmful algae, common off the California coast, “like high C02 conditions.” Experiments in his lab reveal that acidified waters trigger these microscopic plants to produce more toxins that contaminate clams and mussels. These shellfish, in turn, can sicken or kill humans who eat them.”
“Gretchen Hofmann, a UC Santa Barbara ecologist, has found that purple sea urchins, for instance, are far better at tolerating higher acidity than are commercially grown Pacific oysters.”
Purple sea urchin, being a jerk
Although the threat of ocean acidification isn’t going to be hammered out at the next fishery management council meeting — and reducing fossil fuel use has vexed the international community for decades — there may still be steps we can take to respond to the problem at hand. The Governor of Washington state, Christine Gregoire has appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel to address the problem of acidification on Washington’s shellfish industry. The panel has been meeting all year, and state legislators are expected to release a bill in response to the panel’s recommendations by the end of this year.
Interestingly, one problem with past efforts to mitigate climate change through national legislation was the perceived lack of a broad base of support across the political spectrum. Yet as the Baltimore Sun pointed out in an editorial today, a recent poll of America’s sportsman (including hunters and fishers)—who tend to lean conservative—showed overwhelming concern about climate change, and support for policies that would move to mitigate it. A lot of commercial fishermen and other seafood industry folks (such as shellfish farmers) are also actively worried about acidification and its impacts on their industry. This runs counter to the notion that climate change is some sort of a fringe issue, pushed forward only by polar bear huggers. In fact, climate change is of concern to just about everyone with a pulse, whether they want to hug a polar bear or shoot one. That sounds like a pretty broad base to me.
For those who’ve worked tirelessly to curb overfishing, acidification is yet another reason to be proud of our efforts — and inspired to keep working hard to finish the job: there’s reason to believe that healthy ecosystems are more resilient to changes such as acidification. But the fact remains that we’re working to build a prosperous fishing future in an ocean where the proverbial rug is being pulled out from under us. We have our work cut out.
Update: I’m not the only one cracking jokes at the ocean’s expense; yesterday Grist published this awesome ocean acidification primer. Must be something in the water…
[Updated 10/19/12 with additional links and references]