In Washington State, scientists, policy wonks, journalists, conservation groups, and the seafood industry have been studying global warming’s disastrous effect on marine ecosystems and brainstorming ways that society can prevent and mitigate rising acidity in coastal and deep sea waters. The startling consensus thus far: the oceans are in peril and we are running out of time to save them.
Since the early 1900s, the world’s oceans have absorbed about 30% of the carbon in the atmosphere, which has been rising at an accelerated rate due to human consumption of fossil fuels. When carbon is absorbed into the sea, acidity rises and calcium carbonate decreases. This results in a lethal combination for hard bodied organisms in both the deep seas and coastal areas; it makes it harder for organisms like corals, mussels, oysters, and sea snails to build their outer shells and structures. Not only does this strain ecosystems and their ability to withstand normal fluctuations due to storms and natural changes in temperature and acidity, but it also strains industries that rely on these organisms. The shellfish industry in Washington, for example, has been experiencing major hardships caused by decreased yields due to structural weaknesses in the shells of oysters, mussels, geoducks, and other hard-bodied organisms, leading one shellfish farm to move its operation to Hawaii.
It’s grim to think of the repercussions of a failing seafood industry on the Washington State economy and collapsing habitats due to climate change. Obviously, part of the solution is drastically decreasing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. Protecting waterways from pollution from coal trains is part of the solution, as well as re-investing in a sustainable energy economy.
Another solution? Networks of MPAs, or Marine Protected Areas, placed in areas with abundant marine habitat. Scientists from NOAA and the University of Washington have identified MPAs as one of the best ways to sustain a habitat’s resilience and monitor changes due to climate change. Washington State is part of a federal regulatory body called the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. This council could be the next to create an MPA in American waters by designating the largest underwater canyons in the world protective status.
Off the coast of Alaska, the Eastern Bering Sea is home to the Grand Canyons of the Sea and provides about half of the seafood caught in the United States. This area is invaluable to the ecosystem of the Bering Sea because of it’s nutrient rich waters and bountiful habitat formations like corals and sponges. The deep, cold waters of the canyons are already more acidic than the shallower Bering Sea shelf, making these corals more vulnerable to rising acidity.
Washington State has a long list of positive changes that can be made to address the threat of climate change. One of which is mitigating the ill-effects of ocean acidification through advocating for Marine Protected Areas in the Bering Sea Canyons. By protecting the habitat in the canyons from destruction due to industrial fishing, we are providing a safe haven for corals and sponges to thrive and maintain their resilience to global warming. This is an easy part of the larger solution to protecting Washington State from climate change. We urge the representatives from WA on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to take swift action to protect the canyons and ask that Governor Inslee support Marine Protected Areas in the Bering Sea.