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EPA takes small step toward addressing ocean acidification

A pteropod shell damaged by corrosive water. Photo courtesy British Antarctic Survey.

A pteropod shell damaged by corrosive water. Photo courtesy British Antarctic Survey.

Work group to discuss possible new water quality standards that would help assess acidification threats

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The EPA is taking a step toward tackling the issue of ocean acidification, which is leading toward a huge marine biodiversity catastrophe. The agency recently said it will task a panel of scientists to discuss a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity that requests new water quality standards to enable better detection and monitoring of acidification.

Some of the carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere is finding its way to the seas, where it’s changing the basic chemistry of the water and starting to have an impact on corals, shelfish and other marine organisms. One recent study showed exactly how ocean acidification is dissolving the shells of tiny sea snails in the Southern Ocean.

The federal government also has an interagency working group, with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies working on the issue.

“We’re happy to see the EPA taking this first step toward protecting fisheries and coastal ecosystems before it’s too late,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center. “Our oceans are in the midst of a dangerous transformation that, left unchecked, will make sea waters inhospitable for many, many animals. It’s not too late, though, and this working group will be tasked with deciding where the tipping points are, so we can act now to prevent the worst effects.”

“The EPA agrees with the Center for Biological Diversity and other experts in the field that recent scientific research indicates that other ocean chemistry indicators and biological parameters, beyond pH, may be relevant for ocean acidification,” the EPA wrote in its response letter to the petition. For example, scientists have discovered that most corals can no longer grow if waters become to corrosive.

The petition also asked the agency to publish guidance that will help states determine if their coastal waters are impaired by ocean acidification. In 2010, the EPA directed states to periodically evaluate the impacts of ocean acidification on their coastal waters under the Clean Water Act. The move came in response to a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Center that claimed the EPA had failed to address the impairment of waters affected by ocean acidification off Washington state.

“We need a national plan to deal with ocean acidification, and the EPA’s announcement that it will start to tackle the problem head-on is good news,” said Sakashita.

The oceans absorb 22 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution each day, which is changing ocean chemistry. Seawater is becoming more acidic, which makes it difficult for animals to build the protective shells and skeletons they need to survive. Already, ocean acidification has caused oyster die-offs in the Pacific Northwest, sluggish coral growth in the Great Barrier Reef, and plankton to grow thinner, weaker shells in high latitudes.

To learn more, go to EndangeredOceans.org .

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3 Responses

  1. This article addresses the important problem of ocean acidification, but downplays the extent of the issue by many orders of magnitude. The oceans have absorbed the large of the carbon dioxide released by humans and have become 30% more acidic than pre-industrial levels. To say “Some of the carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere is finding its way to the seas” is an understatement to say the least. The job of repairing our planet cannot be left solely to the EPA, but requires action from all of us. The only solution is to rapidly cut emissions, which is a radical change for most people on earth.

    • Thanks, Jacob, it certainly wasn’t my intent to downplay ocean acidification. I’ve reported on the issue extensively, as you can see by the links to related stories at the end of the report.

  2. […] EPA takes small step toward addressing ocean acidification […]

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