Blue Ribbon panel warns about dangers of ocean acidification

May 23, 2012

Carbon emissions are threatening Washington’s shellfish industry. That’s the concern of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, which meets today in Seattle.

It was created after shellfish hatcheries noticed a correlation between declining PH values in Hood Canal and dying oyster larvae. 

Carbon pollution, absorbed by the ocean, interferes with their ability to form shells.

Bill Dewey, with Taylor shellfish farms, says it's been seven years now since Willapa Bay oysters have hatched naturally.

He says, with the help of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they've come to realize that ocean acidification is one of the main contributing factors, impacting all kinds of species that use calcium to build their shells.

"Pacific oysters, as it turns out, are particularly vulnerable. And that's a big deal for us," he says, "because here on the west coast, Pacific oysters represent about 80% of the shellfish that are raised on our farms."

He says it's had a huge impact on the Washington shellfish industry, which the state estimates employs about 3,200 people and generates about $270 million per year in total economic contributions.

The shellfish grower's scare led to the formation of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification last November. It's part of a larger initiative to restore health to Puget Sound. Twenty seven  leading science and policy experts are meeting to determine how to best respond to the ocean health issue.

Jay Manning, co-chair of the panel, says the problem is not just limited to oysters in teh Pacific Northwest. They are the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak. Concern extends to species that are at the very base of the food web, such as  plankton and pteropods, that have shells. "They're tiny...but they're incredibly important as a food source for all kinds of species."  

"And if we start to lose those, there is a scary scenario here of food web collapse here that is real," Manning says. "And we're going to try to come up with some common-sensical, implementible recommendations that will make a difference."

He says in addition to reducing carbon emissions globally, there are more immediate local steps that could help. These include limiting runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from things like failing septic systems or farms. Some scientists also believe increased plantings of eel grass and kelp could help, by absorbing CO-2.

The commission will wrap up its work and issue its final recommendations in October.