Friday, February 23, 2018

Confronting Ocean Acidification in the Salish Sea: An Update on Washington’s Efforts

Pteropod [NOAA]
Guest Blog by Martha Kongsgaard

Ocean acidification (OA) has long been a worry for the Salish Sea. And while the threat persists, we can take some solace in the progress we have made over many years of concentrated study and initiative. The last five years have been particularly important. Washington State has emerged as a global leader in the fight against ocean acidification, thanks to the leadership of Governors Gregoire and  Inslee and the work of cross disciplined scientists and industry leaders.

In December, the Marine Resources Advisory Council (MRAC) , which oversees Washington’s OA work, published an update on the state’s efforts: progress made, new focus areas, and a renewed commitment to multifaceted solutions that integrate research, education, and climate mitigation and adaptation.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Launch of an ocean acidification conservation hatchery that serves as a hub for shellfish research and restoration
  • Improving our understanding of the role of seagrass and kelp in ameliorating local ocean acidification conditions
  • Initiating enhanced and widescale monitoring – with real-time sharing through the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS)  – to collect data and support shellfish hatchery adaptation practices
  • Creating ocean acidification K-12 curricula to increase public awareness

The Blue Ribbon Panel: What it Does and Why it Matters
In 2012, the State of Washington assembled a Blue Ribbon Panel (BRP) of scientists, policymakers, tribes, shellfish growers, agencies and nonprofits to develop a collaborative approach to understanding and tackling ocean acidification. The Blue Ribbon Panel published a landmark plan that same year, which has been used as a model around the globe, and  shared through the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification, a body created by the west coast Governors and the PM of British Columbia. The MRAC recognized the need to re-evaluate and update the 2012 strategy, and released a 2017 Addendum in late December.

Beyond Oysters
Another important -- and sobering-- highlight from the research: the impacts of ocean acidification may be more severe in nearshore coastal waters and the Salish Sea, where corrosive conditions are closer to the surface, than in offshore open ocean waters.

What does this all mean for specific Salish Sea species? The impacts of acidification on shellfish are well documented. But they aren’t alone. Several local species from pteropods to Dungeness crab are showing sensitivity to ocean acidification, suggesting impacts to the entire marine web including salmon and whales.

The Carbon Connection
Because we know that changes in ocean chemistry closely track with changes in atmospheric CO2, none of this work matters if we aren’t simultaneously confronting carbon pollution. Fortunately, we have progress on that front as well, as the Washington State Legislature moves forward with a low carbon fuel standard to lower overall tailpipe emissions. Governor Inslee has also proposed a statewide carbon tax, which would create an investment fund to accelerate the transition to alternative fuel and energy sources.

Looking Ahead
Washington’s resource-based economy relies on a thriving coastal ecosystem and a healthy Salish Sea. Looking forward, I’m confident we will build upon our growing knowledge base, and continue to transform understanding into action. While we should maintain our position as a global leader on this issue, we must remain laser focused on improvements here at home: pairing policy and programs with smart science. And while our understanding improves daily, there is much still to learn. It’s critical that we scale up our monitoring and research efforts so that we recognize the signs of ocean acidification when they appear. Our salmon, Dungeness crab, mussels, oysters, clams -- and, of course, people -- will thank us.

Martha Kongsgaard is the former chair of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council.