Last Wednesday I attended the City of Shoreline’s Sustainability Forum at the City Council Chambers. Councilmember Will Hall introduced us to Jay Manning, Co-Chair of the Governor’s Panel on Ocean Acidification, and Hilary Franz, Executive Director of Futurewise. This is a case of large, regional- even global- focus meets narrow, local focus in one place.
Jay Manning led off, detailing the effects of ocean acidification in Puget Sound and on Washington’s coast. Now, many people may be unaware of that term. It actually means exactly what it says. As carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere increases it diffuses into the ocean. The CO2 joins with the water and forms carbonic acid, lowering the sea’s pH from perhaps 8.25 to 8.14. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s about a 30 percent increase in acidity. We’re not talking about turning the sea to vinegar, but any increase in acidity impacts those animals adapted to basic conditions- all of them- but particularly those which use calcium carbonate to build shells. You see, calcium carbonate dissolves in acids.
Think of a few decades ago when DDT usage was widespread. Its effects on adult birds was negligible, but its effect on their eggs was devastating. The shells were so thin even roosting parents broke them, so reproduction almost stopped. Now that the Sound has gone to 8.2 pH that’s happening to oysters. Recently a major oyster producer found up to 100 percent of their larval oysters had died. Yes, there are other stressors- temperature, pathogens, deoxygenation- but this isn’t a few percentage points, where the effect can be argued back and forth- ‘it’s just part of a natural cycle’, ‘it’s just a local thing’, ‘you’re exaggerating’- no, it’s 100% mortality!
Some growers have found ways to compensate by buffering the water in their hatcheries- giving the shellfish a Tums, essentially- but that’s a short term fix, and nobody believes we can keep doing that indefinitely. There is a monster coming. You see, there is a deep, slow current under the Pacific Ocean which upwells off our coast. The seawater causing the current problem actually acidified with atmospheric CO2, sank (acidified water is slightly heavier than basic water), and started on its journey 30 to 50 years ago. Thirty to fifty years of more and more acidic water produced by more and more fossil fuel burning pouring more and more CO2 into the air since then is on its way.
That, frankly, is terrifying. It may end companies, a way of life, a big chunk of our state’s economy, whole species. It appears we can mount a major holding action, but it is hard to know if anyone can do that on a large enough scale. The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification is pioneering in its timing and depth and we have some major intellectual firepower to deploy on it, including Dr. Richard Feely of the UW, acknowledged as the world’s foremost acidification researcher.
The second major source of acidification is nitrogen. Sewage treatment plant effluent contributes a great deal and septic systems- which Manning says are rarely effective- dump a lot of nitrogen compounds into the Sound, fertilizing it. The last factor is in your hands- literally: fertilizer. It’s exactly as the “Puget Sound Starts Here” program says. Everything you put on your lawn and garden goes to the Sound. They put most of their emphasis on salmon habitat and reducing toxic disposal down street drains, but fertilizers are widespread and add nitrates, and therefore nitric acid to the water.
In the Governor’s Panel Report Overview they talk about things we as a state should do about all that for the shellfish.
Strategy 6.2- Increase the capacity of shellfish and the shellfish industry to adapt to low pH.
Action 6.2.1 — Maintain funding for water quality monitoring at the six existing shellfish hatcheries and rearing areas to help real-time management of hatcheries under changing pH condition. [KEA]
Action 6.2.2 — Expand the deployment of instruments and chemical monitoring to post-hatchery shellfish facilities and farms.
Action 6.2.3 — Investigate and develop commercial-scale water treatment methods or hatchery designs to protect larvae from corrosive seawater. [KEA]
Action 6.2.4 — Identify and incorporate thresholds into shellfish related management and monitoring plans to guide decisions making, as ocean chemistry changes.
Asked what three things individuals can do, Manning replied:
- Drive less- bus, walk, whatever,
- Make sure your home doesn’t contribute- no fertilizers, etc.
- Talk to people as a neighbor- people will listen
He was then asked what the city should do, and said “Storm water runoff is the largest unaddressed issue, the largest source of acidification and pollutants. Strengthen the critical areas ordinance. Shoreline has an excellent Master Program. Habitat loss is a huge problem.
If you have any feedback you are welcome to send it to Miranda Redinger, Senior Planner at Shoreline’s Planning & Community Development Office. Next week I’ll detail what Hilary Franz had to say about how we make our community’s green dreams come true.