Tag Archives: Ocean acidification

Olympia oysters fare better than Pacifics in acidified oceans

Our native Olympia oyster may seem small and meek, but its slow-growing nature may serve it well under future conditions of ocean acidification, according to a new study.

Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons
Olympia oysters // Photo: Wikimedia commons

In fact, the tiny Olympia oysters appear to reproduce successfully in waters that can kill the offspring of Pacific oysters — a species that grows much larger and provides the bulk of the commercial oyster trade in Washington state.

Unlike Pacific oysters, Olympias don’t begin forming their shells until two or three days after fertilization, and the formation progresses slowly, helping to counteract the effects of corrosive water, according to the author of the new study, George Waldbusser of Oregon State University.

Betsy Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund said people who work with Olympia oysters have long suspected that they may have some advantages over Pacific oysters. Olympia oysters keep their fertilized eggs in a brood chamber inside the shell until the larvae are released into the water about two weeks later.

In contrast, the eggs of Pacific oysters are fertilized in the open water and the resulting larvae must fend for themselves right away.

While the brood chamber may protect the larvae from predators, the new study showed that the brood chamber does not protect against ocean acidification. Corrosive water still circulates through the mother’s shell, exposing the larvae.

To test how Olympia oysters would do in open waters, the researchers grew baby oysters outside the brood chamber where they were exposed to acidified water, noted Matthew Gray, a former doctoral student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He is now conducting research at the University of Maine.

“Brooding was thought to provide several advantages to developing young, but we found it does not provide any physiological advantage to the larvae,” Gray said in an OSU news release. “They did just as well outside the brood chamber as inside.”

It appears that a major difference in the development of Pacific and Olympia oysters lies in their reproductive strategies, including differences in managing their energetics.

“Pacific oysters churn out tens of millions of eggs, and those eggs are much smaller than those of native oysters, even though they eventually become much larger as adults,” Waldbusser said. “Pacific oysters have less energy invested in each offspring. Olympia oysters have more of an initial energy investment from Mom and can spend more time developing their shells and dealing with acidified water.”

The research team found that energy stores in young Pacific oysters declined by 38.6 percent per hour, compared to 0.9 percent in Olympia oysters. Pacific oysters put their energy into building their shells seven times faster than Olympia oysters. The exposure to acidified water affects shell development. While the larval oysters may get through the shell-building stage, they often don’t have enough energy left to survive, Waldbusser said.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, was published in the Journal of Limnology and Oceanography.

Puget Sound Restoration Fund has been working for nearly 20 years to restore Olympia oysters at 19 priority locations throughout Puget Sound. The new study lends credence to the effort and support for a recommendation by the 2012 Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. The panel called for restoring the native oyster to Puget Sound to build resilience into the ecosystem, according to Betsy Peabody.

“It was a recommendation that came out before we had the critical science to support it,” Betsy told me. “He (Waldbusser) has just given us the underlying research that supports that recommendation. Our grandchildren may be cultivating Olympia oysters rather than Pacific oysters.”

The panel, appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, called for maintaining the genetic diversity of native shellfish to provide the species a fighting chance against ecological changes brought on by climate change.

Benefits of the Olympia oyster, including so-called ecosystem services, are described in an article by Eric Wagner in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Healthy oyster reefs offer benefits such as cleaning up the water, protecting shorelines from erosion and increasing habitat complexity, which can expand the diversity of sea life.

So far, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has restored 50 acres of shellfish to Puget Sound, working toward a goal of restoring 100 acres by 2020.

Oyster hatcheries in Washington state underwent a temporary crisis a few years ago when Pacific oyster larvae were dying from acidified seawater pumped into the hatcheries. The water still becomes hazardous at times, but careful monitoring of pH levels has allowed hatchery operators to overcome the problem. When the water in an oyster hatchery moves beyond an acceptable pH level, operators add calcium carbonate to alter the pH and support the oyster larvae with shell-building material.

Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms said older oysters might be affected in the future as ocean acidification progresses. “We know things are going to get worse,” he told me.

Because of their small size and high cost of production, Olympia oysters will never overtake the Pacific oyster in terms of market share, Bill said, but they are in high demand among people who appreciate the history of our only native oyster and its unique taste.

The new research by Waldbusser raises the question of whether the highly commercial Pacific oysters could be bred so that their larvae grow slower and perhaps overcome the effects of ocean acidification.

Joth Davis, senior scientist for Puget Sound Restoration Fund and senior researcher for Taylor Shellfish, said the market is strong for a smaller Pacific oyster, so most growers would not object to one that grows more slowly with greater survival.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to maintain the genetic diversity of Olympia oysters and other native species, as growers begin to think about cultivating more natives. Transplanting species from one area to another and boosting their populations with hatcheries creates a potential to override local populations and weaken overall genetic diversity, Joth said.

Geoduck clams, which can be started in hatcheries and grown on a large scale, don’t appear to be genetically distinct from one place to another in Puget Sound, Joth said.

Researchers have found some evidence that Olympia oysters may be genetically distinct when comparing one area of Puget Sound to another. But finding genetic differences does not always mean the population is uniquely adapted to that area, Joth said. Variations might relate to a random population that settles in a specific location. Sometimes it takes careful study to make sense of the differences.

Rich Childers, Puget Sound shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state currently has no firm rules for transferring native species from one place to another. With growing interest in cultivating Olympia oysters, sea cucumbers and other native species, the agency is opening discussions about what kind of controls might be needed.

“We’ve learned lessons from salmon that you can’t spread everything from hell and gone,” Rich said. “Should we be looking at some management or hatchery guidelines that would help maintain genetic diversity? Should we have laws or policies? These are the questions that are just starting to surface.”

Research cruise studies ocean acidification
along West Coast

A major study of ocean acidification along the West Coast is underway with the involvement of 17 institutions, including 36 scientists from five countries.

NOAA's Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown NOAA photo
NOAA’s Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown
NOAA photo

Based aboard the NOAA Research Vessel Ronald H. Brown, the researchers are taking physical, chemical and biological measurements as they consider a variety of ecological pressures on marine species. They will take note of changes since the last cruise in 2013. To obtain samples from shallow waters, the researchers will get help along the way from scientists going out in small vessels launched from land. Staff from Olympic National Park, Channel Islands National Park and Cabrillo National Monument will assist.

The cruise started out last Thursday from San Diego Naval Base. Researchers have been posting information about the trip and their work on a blog called “West Coast Ocean Acidification.”

The month-long working adventure is the fifth of its kind in areas along the West Coast, but this is the first time since 2007 that the cruise will cover the entire area affected by the California Current — from Baja California to British Columbia. The video shows Pacific white-sided dolphins as seen from the deck of the Ron Brown on Monday just west of Baja California.

As on cruises in 2011–2013, these efforts will include studies of algae that cause harmful blooms, as well as analyses of pteropod abundance, diversity, physiology, and calcification, said Simone Alin, chief scientist for the first leg of the cruise.

“We are pleased to welcome new partners and highlight new analyses on this cruise as well,” she continued in her blog post. “For example, some of our partners will be employing molecular methods (proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics) to study the response of marine organisms to their environments.

“We also have scientists studying bacterial diversity and metabolic activity in coastal waters participating for the first time. New assays of stress in krill and other zooplankton — important fish food sources — will also be done on this cruise. Last but not least, other new collaborators will be validating measurements of ocean surface conditions done by satellites from space.”

To learn how satellites gather information about the California Current, check out Earth Observatory.

The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California. Photo: Melissa Ward
The research crew takes water samples using the CTD rosette off the coast of Baja California.
Photo: Melissa Ward

With rising levels of carbon dioxide bringing changes to waters along the West Coast, researchers are gathering information that could help predict changes in the future. Unusually warm waters in the Pacific Ocean the past two years (nicknamed “the blob”) may have compounded the effects of ocean acidification, according to Alin.

Reading the cruise blog, I enjoyed a piece by Melissa Ward, a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in Ecology from UC Davis and San Diego State University. Her story begins:

“As I prepared to leave for the West Coast OA research cruise, many family and friends skipped right over the ‘research’ part, and jumped straight to ‘cruise’. But to their disappointment, the photos of me sitting by the pool drinking my margarita will never materialize.

“The Ron Brown, our research vessel, does have two lounge chairs on the main deck, but they are strapped down to keep them from flying off as we go tipping back and forth with the ocean swells. Immediately after boarding the ship for departure from San Diego to Mexico, you have to start adjusting to this never-ending sway. After some stumbles and falls (which I’m certain the crew found entertaining), you get used to the motion, and can at least minimize public clumsiness.”

Brandon Carter, mission scientist on the cruise, provides a delightful primer on the pros and cons of carbon dioxide in a blog entry posted Tuesday, and Katie Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science posted a blog entry yesterday in which she discusses the CTD rosette, a basic piece of oceanographic equipment used to continuously record conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth as it is lowered down into the ocean. The remote-controlled device can take water samples at any level.

Climate change to alter habitats in Puget Sound

In 50 years, Puget Sound residents will see mostly the same plants and animals they see today, but some changes can be expected. Our favorite species may disappear from places where they are now common.

Climate change is expected to bring higher temperatures, shifts in precipitation patterns, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Some species will no doubt cope where they are. Some will not. Some could move to more hospitable locales, perhaps farther north or to higher elevations in the mountains.

“There are going to be some winners and some losers,” research biologist Correigh Greene told me. His comment seemed to sum up the situation nicely, and I used this quote in the final installment of a three-part series I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

All three climate stories are largely based on a new report from the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington called “State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound.”

What stands out in my mind is how Puget Sound’s food web could be disrupted in unexpected ways. For example, tiny shelled organisms — key prey for many fish species — are already dying because they cannot form healthy shells. And that’s just one effect of ocean acidification.

The observations mentioned in my story and in the report itself come from a variety of experts who understand the needs of various species — from those that live in the water to those dependent on snow in the mountains. What will actually happen on the ground depends on many variables — from the buildup of greenhouse gases to changing trends such as El Nino.

As things are going, it appears that this year will be the warmest on record. The global average surface temperature is expected to reach the symbolic milestone of 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The years 2011 through 2015 have been the warmest five-year period on record, with many extreme weather events influenced by climate change, according to a five-year analysis by WMO.

The new report from the Climate Impacts Group discusses various scenarios based on total emissions of greenhouse gases. High scenarios presume that emissions will continue as they are now. Low scenarios presume that people will dramatically reduce emissions. What will actually happen is unpredictable at this time.

Greenhouse gas emissions are used to predict carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, ultimately pushing up the average global temperature. The first graph below shows the range of annual emissions (in gigatons of carbon) depicted by the various scenarios. The next graph shows how the emissions translate into atmospheric concentration. One can take any of the scenarios and see how the levels translate into temperatures at the end of the century. For a more complete explanation, go to page 19 of the report, where these graphs can be found.




Washington leading on ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is hitting Washington’s shellfish industry even before we begin to experience the full effects of climate change, and Gov. Chris Gregoire placed this state in the forefront of action Tuesday when she signed an executive order on the issue.

The order supports the findings of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Check out the story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

The panel released the report during an hour-long presentation of the findings. If you have time, I recommend watching the informative presentation, provided by TVW in the player at right.

The executive summary of the report, as well as the full report, its appendices and the governor’s order, can be downloaded from panel’s webpage on the Washington Department of Ecology website.

Gregoire’s order is considered the first state-level action on ocean acidification — and that has attracted attention from across the country. For example, stories were written by environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post and by Virginia Gewin of Nature magazine.

Ocean acidification has been called the “evil twin” of global warming, because the effects can be more swift and more severe than gradual warming of the Earth. That’s not to discount other serious effects of climate change, including increased frequency of severe storms, sea level rise with increasing flooding, and heat waves with crippling effects on agriculture. But acidification affects organisms at the base of the entire food web.

The effects of ocean acidification will not be reversed for a long, long time, even if greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control. The upwelling of old water along the coast brings this problem right to our doorstep now and for the foreseeable future.

The shift from coal to natural gas, along with the downturn in the economy, has significantly reduced emissions of carbon dioxide in this country the past couple years, but the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to go up.

“Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general for the World Meteorological Association, in a press release issued yesterday.

The WMA reported that the years 2001–2011 were all among the warmest on record, and it appears that 2012 will continue the trend, despite a cooling influence from La Niña early this year.

“Naturally occurring climate variability due to phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña impact on temperatures and precipitation on a seasonal to annual scale,” Jarraud said. “But they do not alter the underlying long-term trend of rising temperatures due to climate change as a result of human activities.

“The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere,” he added.

Environmental correspondent Alister Doyle reported today for Reuters that the United Nations Panel on Climate Change now believes that it is more certain than ever that humans are the primary cause of global warming.

In its 2007 report, the panel pegged the certainty at more than 90 percent. Now, it appears likely that the scientists will increase that certainty in the next report in 2013, said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the panel who spoke with Doyle at a climate conference in Qatar.

“We certainly have a substantial amount of information available by which I hope we can narrow the gaps, increase the level of certainty of our findings,” he said, adding that analyses also will increase the predicted rate of sea-level rise.

Meanwhile, the “Draft National Ocean Policy and Implementation Plan” is still undergoing review by the National Ocean Council. The report contains a chapter called “Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification” (PDF 732 kb). That chapter contains some of the same recommendations offered by Washington state’s Blue Ribbon Panel, but the state plan is more specific and comes with a recommended $3.3 million budget to begin work on the problem.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is attempting to derail the plan, saying it creates an unnecessary bureaucracy and asserts federal controls not approved by Congress. Read the news release about House action against the plan.

I have not talked to anyone on the council lately, but it appears that President Obama’s election campaign over the past year effectively derailed any movement on this issue. In his first press conference after the election, he pledged to jump-start the climate-change effort, but no mention was made of the ocean policy. Review the video below at 42:20.

Ocean acidification effects noted in Hood Canal

I was caught off guard yesterday when scientists studying Hood Canal and Puget Sound announced that ocean acidification could be worse in inland waterways than in the ocean. I received a quick chemistry lesson from Richard Feeley of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Experimental Laboratory and rushed a story into today’s Kitsap Sun.

I have written about ocean acidification in Water Ways in the past. (See June 2, 2009; July 9, 2009; Jan. 22, 2010; March 18, 2010; and April 19, 2010.) I’ve also written about the troubles in oyster hatcheries with the bacteria Vibrio tubiashii (Kitsap Sun, June 18, 2008). But now growing evidence is revealing a close relation between these problems and a threat to some vital critters at the base of the food web.

Jan Newton, an oceanographer who has studied Hood Canal for years, along with her colleagues at the University of Washington have patiently helped me understand the science behind the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal. I’ve passed much of that information on to readers of the Kitsap Sun and Watching Our Water Ways.

I asked Jan yesterday if she was ready to guide me through this new science behind ocean acidification in Hood Canal and the double-whammy effect connected to the dissolved oxygen problem.

Dick Feeley pointed out a basic problem facing aquatic animals, almost all of which require oxygen to survive. As carbon dioxide levels increase, the rate of respiration increases to obtain enough oxygen for the animals to go about their lives. If oxygen levels are low, the animals will expend more energy just to survive. Some of them may become more sluggish and unable to increase their food intake at the very time they need to replenish their energy reserves.

These kinds of subtle — or not so subtle — effects need to be examined to understand the risks to the entire food web of Hood Canal and Puget Sound.

As for critters with shells, ocean acidification can inhibit shell growth when the animals are tiny and in their free-swimming larval stage — the most vulnerable time of their lives.

I have many questions to explore in the coming weeks and months, as researchers examine new data they are gathering. I’m still reviewing the research report published in the August issue of “Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science.” which can be purchased online for $19.95. Stay tuned for more.

Study shows increasing acidity in Northeast Pacific

For those of us concerned about sealife, the issue of ocean acidification is beginning to be at least as worrisome as rising ocean temperatures.

The first direct evidence of ocean acidification across a broad expanse of ocean was revealed this week in a new report detailing an ongoing study focused on waters between Hawaii and Alaska.

Ocean acidification, related to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is believed to be affecting the ocean’s food web, beginning with creatures that form external shells of calcium and carbonate.

A new report, based on direct measurements of acidity at the ocean’s surface, as well as biological changes down to half a mile, show an increase in acid concentrations. Principal investigator Robert Byrne of the University of South Florida said there is no longer any doubt that increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are affecting the world’s oceans.

“If this happens in a piece of ocean as big as a whole ocean basin, then this is a global phenomenon,” Byrne said in a news release.

Scientists from 11 academic institutions and two labs operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are taking part in a long-term study of ocean conditions in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, where changes are happening rapidly.

Christopher Sabine, one of the leaders of the investigation, commented in the news release:

“It is now established from models that there is a strong possibility that dissolved carbon dioxide in the ocean surface will double over its pre-industrial value by the middle of this century, with accompanying surface ocean pH decreases that are greater than those experienced during the transition from ice ages to warm ages. The uptake of anthropogenic carbon dioxide by the ocean changes the chemistry of the oceans and can potentially have significant impacts on the biological systems in the upper oceans.”

We have talked before in Water Ways about ocean acidification, but in a more speculative way. More information is coming out all the time. An excellent synthesis of current knowledge can be found in the latest issue of the journal “Oceanography.” Although somewhat technical, the subject is broken down into focused articles that are easy to get through. I recommend that anyone who cares about the oceans spend a little time with this online information.

For a more general description, check out the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory’s page on Ocean Acidification including a brief fact sheet (PDF 280 kb) on the topic.

Sandi Daughton, science reporter for the Seattle Times, wrote about the latest findings in a story on Wednesday.

Ocean acidification deserves more research attention

Ocean acidification off the U.S. Pacific Coast is likely to get increased attention and research dollars with Jane Lubchenco heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lubchenco, a marine ecologist from Oregon State University, has served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is well grounded in basic research.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lubchenco discusses some of her priorities, including how NOAA is addressing climate change, along with a report released by her agency in June called “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.”

While I was disappointed that the climate report did not include more about the growing concerns related to chemical changes off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, Lubchenco stated clearly in this interview that she believes more research is needed regarding ocean acidification:

“The oceans are indeed becoming more acidic, as a result of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and that acidity represents a very real threat to much of the life in oceans, ranging from the smallest microscopic plants, to coral reefs, to things that form shells — mussels, oysters, clams — but even things like lobsters and crabs.

“We’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of really understanding the full range of the impacts of ocean acidification, and it also affects physiology, not just the making of shells and skeletons.”

Specifically about the Pacific Northwest:

“NOAA has been in the forefront in the research on ocean acidification, and is working in close collaboration with the leading academics on this issue. And we have identified the urgent need to have more instruments in the water tracking and measuring the changes that are underway, so we can better understand the dynamics. And, as you point out, along the West Coast where there is upwelling, there appears to be an area that is already significantly affected, and we’re seeing much greater changes than I think anyone anticipated.

“They’re seeing very low pH levels and the other chemistry that goes along with that, it’s not simply a matter of pH. There are other chemical changes in the ocean water that affect plants and animals, and the rate at which they can make shells, or the rate at which shells are dissolved.

“I just learned today of some very interesting work being done by NOAA and some academic scientists looking at some deep-sea volcanoes in the western Pacific where there is carbon dioxide that is bubbling up from beneath the ocean, and likely causing lower pH in the immediate vicinity of the areas where the bubbles are emerging. And so there are places where it is possible to investigate the consequences of lower pH on the immediate biota in the area. But setting that aside, I think there is great urgency in significantly ramping up research monitoring and research programs on ocean acidification.”

I believe you may find the entire interview worth reading. As an environmental reporter, I think it will be important to follow how research dollars will be spent in the Northwest to investigate these potential life-and-death changes.

Attack of ocean acids could be the basis of a scary movie

I would like to confess something here: I am more afraid of the oceans growing more acidic than any of the other consequences of climate change — including drought, floods, reduced snow pack, sea level rise, arctic ice disappearing…

I’m not sure why ocean acidification scares me, but it probably has to do with the fact that I am not very grounded in the science. I need to learn more about the chemistry of the oceans and what concentrations of acidic compounds cause severe problems.

I remember learning, during my school days in chemistry lab, how strong acids can dissolve almost anything but glass. I still can hear the hissing sound and and see vapors rising during acid-base reactions. On an emotional level, I don’t want to be swimming around in acid, and I don’t want our friends, the sea creatures, to be doing so, either.

If you want to produce a scary movie, forget about violent encounters with giant squid and surprise attacks by a great white shark. Here’s how I would write the movie trailer:

Scene: The dark surface of the wayward sea.
Cue the ominous music, then the announcer: “Sea life cannot survive without water, yet something strange is lurking beneath the waves. Do you dare touch the water, knowing that the water itself can bring death? What can anyone do against this growing menace we call ACID?”

Water should be neutral, a pH of 7.0. OK, I know this doesn’t happen in real life, but I don’t want the oceans’ acid levels to stray too far off that mark.

Seriously, notable scientists are telling us that ocean acidification may be starting to affect the entire food web, because of its effects on certain plankton and all sorts of shelled critters. If what they say is true, ocean acidification really is quite scary.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported that the Center for Biological Diversity is suing the federal government to protect the oceans under the Clean Water Act. (See Water Ways, May 15.) Washington was chosen as the test case, because upwelling of ocean water makes the West Coast especially vulnerable to acidification. We’ll see how this lawsuit works out in court, since the data remain a bit sketchy.

Yesterday, at least 70 “Academy of Sciences” groups from throughout the world warned that ocean acidification is not getting enough attention and should get more of a focus in international discussions — including a December meeting in Copenhagen. (Check out the InterAcademy Panel’s announcement about ocean acidification.)

Chen Zhu, minister of health in the People’s Republic of China, and Howard Alper, chairman and president of Science, Technology and Innovation Council, Canada, are serving as co-chairs of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues. They said in a statement:

“There has been much talk among the science community over the past few years about ocean acidification and its potentially catastrophic consequences, but it has failed to receive the political attention it demands. Its absence from discussions to-date is of immense concern, and we call for its immediate inclusion as a vital part of the climate change agenda.”

At the same time, a new study by Sarah Cooley and Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported that ocean acidification and its effects on marine organisms will have direct and indirect effects on the U.S. economy and its $3.8 billion in annual commercial harvests. The report was published in the journal “Environmental Research Letters” (PDF 381 kb).

Publications covering this story include:
The Guardian, The New York Times — Greenwire, and The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

Washington state faces lawsuit over ocean acidification

Washington state has been established as a test case for regulating greenhouse gases through the federal Clean Water Act.

A lawsuit brought yesterday by the Center for Biological Diversity is the first legal case to assert that the Environmental Protection Agency must take action under a water law to reduce carbon dioxide in the air and ultimately save sea creatures.

“Ocean acidification is global warming’s evil twin,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “The EPA has a duty under the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s waters from pollution. Today, CO2 is one of the biggest threats to our ocean waters.”
Click here to download the legal filing (PDF 192 kb).

Sakashita told me that Washington state was chosen as the first case because studies have revealed particular problems with ocean acidity along the West Coast. Also, the Washington Department of Ecology recently updated its list of impaired water bodies without mentioning the acidity problem. And EPA endorsed that list.

A study published in the journal “Science” suggests that the upwelling of ocean waters along the West Coast could increase acidification faster than other parts of the county.

A separate study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms links between acidity in the ocean and atmospheric carbon dioxide. That study also describes effects on the ecosystem, including a bleak future for shelled organisms, including mussels.

“Our results indicate that pH decline is proceeding at a more rapid rate than previously predicted in some areas, and that this decline has ecological consequences for near-shore benthic ecosystems,” states a summary of the report.

Scientists have expressed concerns that ocean acidification could have serious consequences for a variety of shelled creatures, including corals, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins and some plankton. High acid levels can prevent the formation of shell material and could disrupt the food web.

For background information, see a EurekAlert from last May. I also discussed the issue in a Water Ways entry in November.

The Clean Water Act requires states to identify impaired waters that fail to meet water-quality standards. In Washington, the Department of Ecology assumes jurisdiction over enforcement of the law. In January, EPA approved Washington’s list of impaired waters, also called the 303(d) list, without mentioning acidification.

“Ocean acidification is not some distant threat that can be shunted off to future decision-makers; it has already arrived, and we have to acknowledge and deal with the problem right now,” said Sakashita in a news release. “EPA has all the evidence it needs to act to begin protecting our waters from ocean acidification. Further delay is simply not justified.”

Sandy Howard, spokeswoman for Ecology, said her agency is not ducking from the issue. In fact, Gov. Chris Gregoire is one of the nation’s leaders on climate change. The problem, she told me, is that the agency never received the precise data to show that the oceans are impaired by acidity.

Ecology’s response to Sakashita’s letter (PDF 16 kb) includes this comment:

“Our state law requires that actual data be used for 303(d) listing purposes, rather than broader studies and assumptions about the status of waters. Ecology reviewed the studies that were submitted in previous correspondence and could find no monitoring data relevant to specific marine water body segments in Washington.”

Some of the more recent studies, which are still fairly general, may not have been available when Ecology completed its list, and ocean acidity is not easy to measure. Howard said Ecology is open to reconsidering the acidity issue for its next impaired waters list.

When a water body is listed as impaired, Ecology normally proceeds to identify the sources of pollution and establish limits for each source or group of sources. In the case of acidity, the state faces a major problem, Howard noted, because many of the sources of carbon dioxide are likely to be in foreign countries, where the state has no authority to act.

Sakashita argues that under the Clean Water Act, the EPA should take steps to limit the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air.

Sakashita’s letter to Ecology — as well as other letters and responses — can be found on a Web page addressing Ecology’s Water Quality Assessment.