Scientists urge practical steps to combat ocean acidification

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The summer of 2015 saw an unprecedented bloom of algae along the West Coast. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Seeking resilience for coastal ecosystems

Staff Report

Scientists are urging resource managers along the West Coast of North America to start using adaptive strategies in the face of ocean acidification and hypoxia caused by global carbon dioxide emissions.

The report comes after a couple of years of record-warm ocean temperatures off the West Coast likely contributed to several unprecedented events, including a mass starfish die-off, a huge bloom of toxin-producing algae, a wave of sea lion pup mortality, and fin whale deaths near Alaska.

In general, scientists believe that warmer ocean temperatures will increase the prevalence of marine diseases, but there are steps that could help coastal communities meet the challenges of changing ocean chemistry, including better monitoring, and boosting natural ecosystems that can remove CO2 from water.

The 20-member panel of ocean experts said the West Coast is a hotspot for climate change impacts because of upwelling cold water that that transports nutrient-rich, low-oxygen and high carbon dioxide water from deep in the water column to the surface near the coast.

But all is not lost, the scientists said, explaining that governments in Oregon, California, Washington and British Columbia can take actions now to offset and mitigate the effects of these changes. Acting now is less expensive than waiting for the long-term impacts to play out, the panel concluded.

“Ocean acidification is a global problem that is having a disproportionate impact on productive West Coast ecosystems,” said Francis Chan, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-chair of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel. “There has been an attitude that there is not much we can do about this locally, but that just isn’t true. A lot of the solutions will come locally and through coordinated regional efforts.”

“Communities around the country are increasingly vulnerable to ocean acidification and long-term environmental changes,” said Richard Spinrad, chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and former OSU vice president for research. “It is crucial that we comprehend how ocean chemistry is changing in different places, so we applaud the steps the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel has put forward in understanding and addressing this issue.”

“One of the things all of the scientists agree on is the need for better ocean monitoring or ‘listening posts,’ up and down the West Coast,” said Jack Barth, a professor and associate dean in Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a member of the panel. “It is a unifying issue that will require participation from state and federal agencies, as well as universities, ports, local governments and NGOs.”

“We’re just starting to see the impacts now, and we need to accelerate what we know about how increasingly acidified water will impact our ecosystems,” said panel member Waldo Wakefield, a research fisheries biologist with NOAA Fisheries in Newport and courtesy associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Wakefield said. “West Coast fisheries are economic drivers of many coastal communities, and the seafood we enjoy depends on a food web that is likely to be affected by more corrosive water.”

Among the panel’s specific recommendations:

  • Develop new benchmarks for near-shore water quality as existing criteria were not developed to protect marine organisms from acidification;
  • Improve methods of removing carbon dioxide from seawater through the use of kelp beds, eel grass and other plants;
  • Enhance coastal ecosystems’ ability to adapt to changing ocean chemistry through better resource management, including marine reserves, adaptive breeding techniques for shellfish, and other methods.

“With the best scientific recommendations in hand from the science panel, we now have the information on which to base our future management decisions,” said Caren Braby, marine resource manager at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “These are practical recommendations natural resource managers and communities can use to ensure we continue to have the rich and productive ecosystem Oregonians depend on for healthy fisheries, our coastal culture and economy.”

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