By Ryan Wynne
Jeremy Brown, vice president of Commercial Fishermen of America, has been fishing commercially since moving to Bellingham 28 years ago. He has seen many changes in the ocean over that period and has even seen the infamous garbage island off the Pacific coast, but recently he started seeing signs of something new.
“All my sense is that things are changing in the ocean quite profoundly,” Brown said.
Brown stayed on the alert for new reports related to ocean health and started connecting the dots. He learned there is a problem arising that has the potential to devastate the region’s fishing industry, he said.
“It’s probably the thing that would keep me awake at night. I don’t think North Korea is a threat to my future. I do think environmental concerns are,” Brown said. “This is going to have huge implications. Seafood is a big contributor to the local economy.”
The phenomenon Brown is referring to is called ocean acidification, a process where the ocean slowly grows more acidic and interferes with oceanic ecosystems, and it is creating uncommon alliances as fishermen and scientists join forces to look for solutions.
The international marine conservation organization Oceana, which is often at odds with fishing interests, joined forces with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), according to an SFP press release drafted shortly after the environmental summit in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.
“Oceana and SFP have very different ways of relating to the fishing industry,” said Brad Warren, a veteran fishing industry analyst who now directs a program on ocean acidification for SFP. “But when it comes to acidification, our common goal is bigger than our disagreements. That goal is to ensure that the oceans remain capable of supporting strong fisheries and healthy ecosystems.”
Brown said he is not at all surprised by collaboration between fishermen and scientists. It makes sense because scientists can help fishermen find solutions and fishermen can help scientists by providing first-hand observational knowledge, he said. He said even a lot of fishermen who don’t believe climate change is happening can see the effects of ocean acidification first hand.
Fisherman and farmers tend to be much more aware of what’s going on with the environment because that’s where they work, Brown said, and they often want to help because the environment is a matter of their livelihood.
“I’m a fisherman. That involves not only working on the ocean, but taking care of it and advocating for it’s health,” Brown said. “If the ocean is sick, I’m out of work.”
Is the ocean really becoming acidic?
When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide is emitted. Those emissions have dramatically increased since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Oceans have absorbed about 50 percent, approximately 525 billion tons, of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website. When CO2 reacts with H2O in seawater it produces H2CO3, called carbonic acid.
“It’s high school-level chemistry,” Warren from Sustainable Fisheries said.
That absorption has lowered the pH of the ocean. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of ocean surface waters has decreased from an average of about 8.21 to 8.10, according to NOAA. A pH of seven is neutral and below seven is acidic. That means the ocean isn’t actually acidic, but is headed toward the acidic end of the pH spectrum and becoming more corrosive.
Warren said if ocean acidification is as real as it appears, more needs to be learned.
Christopher Harley is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of zoology whose lab studies the effects of ocean acidification, and monitors them first hand.
He said results of the pH change can already be seen in marine organisms that produce calcium carbonate, such as oysters, clams, zooplankton and coral reefs. The more corrosive water is making shell formation at the larval stage much more difficult, he said. If there are no larvae, there are no adults, and that’s a problem for the seafood industry.
Harley said there are already shellfish hatcheries in Oregon and British Columbia that can no longer produce their own larvae.
Producers in peril
Washington isn’t immune to the problem. Taylor Shellfish Farms has farms all over Washington, including one on Samish Bay off Chuckanut Drive. Oysters for those farms come from the company’s two hatcheries, one in Kona, Hawaii, and one on the Hood Canal in Washington.
Bill Dewey, a spokesman for the company, said that while the Kona hatchery’s larvae production has remained steady, Hood Canal’s has dramatically decreased. In 2008, production was off 60 percent to 70 percent and in 2009 it was off by 80 percent, Dewey said.
“We’ve been having a lot of trouble with our larvae production,” Dewey said. “If you don’t have oyster seeds, you don’t have an oyster farm. If we don’t have seeds, we don’t have a product.”
West Coast shellfish hatcheries that rely on seeds to set naturally are having even more problems than those that don’t, Dewey said. It has been about five years since Willapa Bay hatcheries have had a natural set, he said, and producers in that region provide well over 50 percent of the oysters on the West Coast.
Dewey and Harley said the West Coast is particularly vulnerable to the effects of ocean acidification. On average, the pH along the West Coast is lower than the world average, Harley said.
“It is changing the ocean pH worldwide. It already has,” Dewey said. “Unfortunately for us, that seems to be exacerbated on the West Coast.”
Still, Dewey said ocean acidification won’t just stay on the West Coast. He is afraid the pH could eventually lower at the company’s Kona hatchery if something isn’t done soon, and right now, the Kona hatchery is providing larvae to all of the Taylor Shellfish farms.
Fin fish in the wild don’t appear to be directly suffering from the effects of acidification yet, but Brown said he is afraid of the indirect problems that could result when the food sources for some fin fish are diminished. Specifically, Brown said, salmon eat calcium carbonate-producing plankton, and he doesn’t know what would happen if those plankton disappeared from the food chain.
If the fishing industry disappeared, so would jobs on fishing boats, in processing facilities and in cold storage facilities, Brown said.
“Worst case scenario,” Brown said, “the wheels come off the whole thing and there are no fish.”
Brown said there is a fair amount of talk about ocean acidification among fishermen in the area, and it has some of them worried because fishermen can see it.
Stopping the burn of acidification
Brown is doing what he can to spread the word about ocean acidification. He has done everything from speaking on a University of Washington panel on ocean health, to having conversations with other fishermen. He is trying to get the word out now because he’s afraid that if something isn’t done to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification right away, the problem will continue to get worse.
“It’s a lot better to try to stop things from getting bad before they do, rather than trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle,” Brown said.
Things could definitely become worse. Harley said students in his lab simulated ocean conditions that are within the range scientists are projecting for the end of the century. Those simulations showed an abalone population that was only 60 percent normal, meaning the other 40 percent had abnormalities such as warped shells. And the normal abalone, Harley said, were smaller than those reared in control seawater.
Abalone, oysters and other calcium carbonate produced organisms won’t be the only directly affected if ocean acidification continues getting worse, according to a report by Ken Caldeira and Michael Wickett published in the September 23, 2003 volume of the science journal Nature.
“We conclude that unabated CO2 emissions over the coming centuries may produce changes in ocean pH that are greater than any experienced in the past 300 [million years], with the possible exception of those resulting from rare, catastrophic events in Earth’s history,” the report says.
Harley said the ending is not written in stone, though, and that more attention is being paid to acidification. He said the U.S. government has made a lot of funding available for acidification research to find out what is going to happen and what can be done to mitigate it.
And there are a lot of little things individuals can do to reduce carbon emissions, from driving less to simply turning out the lights, he said.
“Every little thing helps,” Harley said. “I think ocean acidification, rather than being a ‘throw up your hands and give up’ scenario, should be a call to action.”