UW News

April 4, 2016

Scientists recommend immediate plan to combat changes to West Coast seawater chemistry

UW News

Global carbon dioxide emissions are triggering troubling changes to ocean chemistry along the West Coast that require immediate, decisive actions to combat through a coordinated regional approach, a panel of scientific experts has unanimously concluded.

A failure to adequately respond to this fundamental change in seawater chemistry, known as ocean acidification, is anticipated to have devastating ecological consequences for the West Coast in the decades to come, the 20-member West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia (OAH) Science Panel, which included scientists from the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Seattle office, warned in a comprehensive report unveiled April 4.

“The findings of the West Coast OAH Science Panel build on those of the Washington Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, extending those findings to the entire West Coast, and incorporating consideration of the growing stressor, hypoxia. The strength of the OAH Panel’s findings lies in the coordinated, regional approach to the problem and opportunities for mitigation and adaptation that are scaled to the West Coast,” said Terrie Klinger, who participated in both panels and co-directs the Washington Ocean Acidification Center. Klinger is also director and professor of the UW’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

“Due to the combined impacts of ocean acidification and seasonal upwelling, the West Coast is exposed to unusually high volumes of seawater at elevated acidity levels,” said Richard Feely of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

Already, marine shelled organisms in Washington are having difficulty forming their protective outer shells, and the local shellfish industry is seeing high mortality rates in early life stages of some commercially important shellfish species when shell formation is critical.

“The acidity of West Coast waters is anticipated to continue to accelerate in lockstep with rising atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions,” Feely added.

The panel’s final report, titled “The West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel Major Findings, Recommendations and Actions,” summarizes the state of the science around the anticipated impacts of these multiple stressors on our marine resources. It outlines a series of potential management actions that the governments of Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia can immediately begin implementing to offset and mitigate the economic and ecological impacts of ocean acidification.

The panel is urging ocean management and natural resource agencies to develop highly coordinated, comprehensive multiagency solutions, including:

  • Reducing carbon emissions is critical to addressing the root cause
  • Exploring approaches that involve the use of seagrass to remove carbon dioxide from seawater
  • Supporting wholesale revisions to water-quality criteria that are used as benchmarks for improving water quality, as existing water-quality criteria were not written to protect marine organisms from the damaging effects of ocean acidification
  • Identifying strategies for reducing the amounts of land-based pollution entering coastal waters, especially in bays, estuaries and sounds, as this pollution can exacerbate the intensity of acidification in some locations
  • Enhancing a West Coast-wide monitoring network that provides information toward development of coastal ecosystem management plans
  • Supporting approaches that enhance the adaptive capacity of marine organisms to cope with ocean acidification

The report emphasized that global carbon emissions are the dominant cause of ocean acidification and that the West Coast states should advance regional carbon management strategies. The panel deliberately focused its recommendations around actions West Coast ocean management and natural resource agencies can take in each jurisdiction to combat the challenge at the regional level.

For example, the Washington Marine Resources Advisory Council (MRAC) — formed after the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification — is advancing the Blue Ribbon Panel’s ocean acidification strategies, helping Washington adapt and respond to ocean acidification. Its members plan to go to the state legislature in 2017 for more funding for research, monitoring, modeling and outreach.

The Washington Ocean Acidification Center is providing funds from the state legislature to shellfish growers to continue monitoring at five key sites in Puget Sound and Willapa Bay. The water-quality monitoring alerts growers to periods where conditions are not conducive for hatchery production so that they can maximize production and avoid losses due to ocean acidification.

The center is also partnering with NOAA Fisheries to perform experimental studies on Dungeness crab, and is collaborating with Washington Sea Grant to fund innovative, new experimental studies on the state’s salmon and sablefish.

“The Washington OA Center plays a role in coordinating science and monitoring, in collaboration with many partners, and then consistently communicating results to the MRAC, providing a critical link to policymakers and the legislature in Washington state. We find this structure to be an effective means of connecting science with policy and recommend that this type of coordination could be implemented along the West Coast,” said Jan Newton, a UW oceanographer who co-directs the Washington Ocean Acidification Center and participated in both panels.

West Coast policymakers will use the panel’s recommendations to continue to advance management actions aimed at combating ocean acidification and hypoxia. This work will be coordinated through the Pacific Coast Collaborative, a coalition of the offices of the governors of Washington, Oregon, California, and the premier of British Columbia, which have been working together on ocean acidification since 2013.

The West Coast OAH Science Panel, which convened for a three-year period that ended in February, also has recommended the formation of a task force to continue to advance the scientific foundation for comprehensive, managerially relevant solutions to West Coast ocean acidification.

This was adapted from a release by the California Ocean Science Trust. Read the full release.