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Carbon Pollution is Harming our Oceans

28 Aug 2014  |   Hannah Blatt

Tags: General Environment, Climate Change, Clean Water

“It used to be the canary in the coal mine. Now it’s the oyster in the half shell.”

-Washington Governor Jay Inslee

As we find ourselves spending our final days at the beach, we may not realize that our oceans are changing before our eyes.  But Governor Inslee might suggest we take a deeper look. If the oyster is the canary of the changing chemistry in our oceans, this signals that we ought to get out—not of the water, but out of the grips of dirty fossil fuels. That’s because ocean acidification is driven by the same carbon pollution that’s causing climate change, and it’s a serious threat to our seafood and local economies. It’s a challenge that states cannot solve alone, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) plan to place the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from our nation’s top polluters, power plants, are critical; they’re heeding the warning of the oyster in the half shell.  

Our oceans absorb nearly one third of the carbon pollution released into our air, which makes them more acidic—this process is known as ocean acidification. However, for an ecosystem to thrive, it needs the chemistry of the ocean to stay in a certain range. Otherwise, as the ocean becomes more acidic, it becomes harder for shellfish like oysters, clams, crabs and sea snails to build strong shells.

Ocean acidification is already impacting shellfish and ocean ecosystems from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Maine. Recently, the Gulf of Maine saw an increase in the number of lobsters with shell disease, and warming waters and ocean acidification have been cited as possible factors in the declining lobster population. Around 2006, Pacific Northwest oyster larvae began dying off in large numbers, completely wiping out some hatcheries. Similarly, scientists are worried about Alaska, where the crab and salmon fisheries off the coastline are also threatened.

Yet, this problem extends beyond endangering our seafood; it’s also jeopardizing the future of our local economies. Currently, the fishing industry in Washington State employs 42,000 people and generates $1.7 billion in annual revenue—and much of the $270 million shellfish industry is at risk. In Alaska, the fishing industry brings in $5 billion per year and helps employ over 100,000 people. Yet, there are real concerns that the state’s $100 million king crab fishery could collapse, and changes impacting subsistence fisheries would threaten the food supply for 120,000 residents. In Maine, the fishing industry generated over a half a billion dollars last year, with $364 million coming from lobsters and $17 million from softshell clams—two economically important stocks of shellfish greatly jeopardized by ocean acidification.  

States are taking notice, and so are Senators Maria Cantwell and Mark Begich—they are working to expand the buoys system, a network of data collecting devices strategically placed in our oceans by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), so we can accurately monitor the changing chemistry of our oceans. However, this will only show us the extent of the problem; we also need concrete steps to address ocean acidification. The EPA has taken important steps to reduce our carbon emissions by placing fuel efficiency standards on our cars and proposing the first national limits on the amount of carbon pollution power plants can spew into our air. These steps show the world that we’ve seen the warning of the oyster in the half shell, and we’re serious about combating ocean acidification. Of course, our air and water flows beyond our borders, which is why we must also come together to forge an international agreement

(Flickr photograph taken by Berit Watkin)

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