Scientists sound alarm for changing ocean industry

Integrative Biology professor Francis Chan is co-chair of a 20-member panel of leading West Coast ocean scientists who presented a comprehensive report recently outlining a series of recommendations to address the increase in ocean acidification and hypoxia, or extremely low oxygen levels. The report urged the governments of Oregon, California, Washington and British Columbia to take actions now to offset and mitigate the effects of global carbon dioxide emissions, which is rapidly changing ocean chemistry along the West Coast of North America.

Ocean acidification is a global problem that is having a disproportionate impact on productive West Coast ecosystems,” said Chan, a marine ecologist and co-chair of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel.

“There has been an attitude that there is not much we can do about this locally, but that just isn’t true. A lot of the solutions will come locally and through coordinated regional efforts.”

Ocean acidification and hypoxia are distinct phenomena that trigger a wide range of effects on marine ecosystems. They frequently occur together and represent two important facets of global ocean changes that have important implications for Oregon’s coastal oceans.

Among the panel’s recommendations:

  • Develop new benchmarks for near-shore water quality as existing criteria were not developed to protect marine organisms from acidification;
  • Improve methods of removing carbon dioxide from seawater through the use of kelp beds, eel grass and other plants;
  • Enhance coastal ecosystems’ ability to adapt to changing ocean chemistry through better resource management, including marine reserves, adaptive breeding techniques for shellfish, and other methods.
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Francis Chan, associate professor, integrative biology

Chan said regional awareness of the impact of changing ocean chemistry started in Oregon. Some of the first impacts were seen about 15 years ago when the state began experiencing seasonal hypoxia, or low-oxygen water, leading to some marine organism die-offs. Then the oyster industry was confronted with high mortality rates of juvenile oysters because of increasingly acidified water. It turns out that Oregon was on the leading edge of a much larger problem.

“It was a wakeup call for the region, which since has spread up and down the coast,” said Chan.

California responded to this call, and in partnership with Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, convened a panel of scientific experts to provide advice on the issue. The panel worked with federal and state agencies, local organizations and higher education institutions to identify concerns about ocean acidification and hypoxia, then developed a series of recommendations and actions that can be taken today.

Last year, OSU researchers completed the deployment of moorings, buoys and gliders as part of the Endurance Array – a component of the $386 million National Science Foundation-funded Ocean Observatories Initiative, created to address ocean issues including acidification.

These and other ocean-monitoring efforts will be important to inform policy-makers about where to best focus their adaptation and mitigation strategies.

“The panel’s findings provide a road map to help us prepare for the changes ahead,” said Gabriela Goldfarb, natural resource policy adviser to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. “How Oregon and the West Coast address ocean acidification will inform those confronting this issue around the country and world.”

“With the best scientific recommendations in hand from the science panel, we now have the information on which to base our future management decisions,” added Caren Braby, marine resource manager at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “These are practical recommendations natural resource managers and communities can use to ensure we continue to have the rich and productive ecosystem Oregonians depend on for healthy fisheries, our coastal culture and economy.”

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