West Coast Scientists Recommend Immediate Action Plan to Combat Ocean Acidification

By Kat Kerlin

Global carbon dioxide emissions are triggering permanent changes to ocean chemistry along the West Coast. Failure to act on this fundamental change in seawater chemistry, known as ocean acidification, is expected to have devastating ecological consequences for the West Coast in the decades to come, warns a multistate panel of scientists, including two from UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Their report, issued this week, urges immediate action and outlines a regional strategy to combat the alarming global changes underway. Inaction now will reduce options and impose higher costs later, the report said.

P20 - Bob Wick:Creative Commons License

Global carbon dioxide emissions is changing ocean chemistry, particularly along the West Coast. Credit: Bob Wick/Creative Commons

“The work of the panel has brought the threat of ocean acidification and hypoxia to the fore, and has provided specific guidance on next steps for West Coast managers and decision makers,” said UC Davis professor Tessa Hill, a member of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel, which authored the report, and associate director of the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute. “In being proactive, the West Coast will serve as a model for other coastal regions on how to tackle this global problem at a regional scale. Decisions that we make now matter a great deal — and there is a cost to inaction.”

West Coast affected more so than other regions
Atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions from human activities affect not only global climate change, but are also absorbed by the world’s oceans. That can lead to ocean acidification and hypoxia, a term referring to low dissolved oxygen levels. Ocean acidity is expected to continue in lockstep with rising atmospheric CO2 emissions.

Because of the way the Pacific Ocean circulates, the West Coast is exposed to disproportionately high volumes of seawater at elevated acidity levels. Already, West Coast marine shelled organisms are having difficulty forming protective outer shells, and the West Coast shellfish industry is seeing high mortality rates during early life stages when shell formation is critical.

Developing shellfish

West Coast shellfish already have difficulty forming their protective shells due to ocean acidification. Credit: Nina Bednarsek

Strategies to combat ocean acidification
The panel’s report outlines potential management actions the governments of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia can immediately take to mitigate the economic and ecological impacts of ocean acidification.

Their recommendations include:

  • Explore using seagrass to remove CO2 from seawater.
  • Develop new benchmarks for improving water quality that take into account protecting marine organisms from ocean acidification.
  • Identify strategies to reduce the amount of pollution entering coastal waters from the land.
  • Strengthen a West Coast-wide monitoring network that informs coastal ecosystem management plans.
  • Support approaches that help marine organisms cope with acid acidification.

“Our panel dug deep into new research and debated intensely on what is more or less likely to occur,” said panel member and UC Davis professor John Largier. “We sought local solutions to local impacts. But we also recognize that underlying those impacts is a global phenomenon due to carbon dioxide emissions that requires urgent global attention.”

The West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel was convened for a three-year period in 2013 to explore how West Coast government agencies could work together with scientists to combat the effects of ocean acidification and hypoxia. The panel’s report, “Major Findings, Recommendations and Actions,” can be read at http://westcoastoah.org/executivesummary/.

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