California lawmaker, researchers look to study impact of rising ocean acidity

Posted on The News Tribune: 9 Mar 2015 — By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A California congresswoman is pushing for more funding to explore the potential for increasingly acidic oceans to harm sealife – and the related fisheries – off her coast.

Rep. Lois Capps, a Democrat whose district covers all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, introduced legislation last week that would direct additional federal money for research projects that would help reveal the impact acidification may have on the seafood industry.

“They are very fearful of the future,” she said in an interview, talking about seafood producers from her district. “The warning sounds – the alarms – have come from both academia and the industry, and it’s a very powerful combination.”

Capps’ bill would amend existing legislation on ocean acidification research to provide grants to foster collaboration between academic researchers and the seafood industry. It would boost funding by up to $5 million per year for five years for such projects, which would be designed to assist seafood growers, harvesters, fishermen and others to assess the risks of ocean acidification.

The bill faces very long odds, given the thousands of bills introduced each year as well as the Republican control of Congress.

Ocean acidification is sometimes referred to as “the other carbon dioxide problem,” and it conveys the gradual increase of acid in the world’s waters. It is driven by the burning of fossil fuels and the massive amounts of carbon that releases, some of which is absorbed by the world’s oceans. That makes the waters more acidic, and the additional acid makes it hard for some shell-building species to develop the shells they need to survive.

The issue was significant in the Pacific Northwest between 2005 and 2009, when acidified conditions killed billions of oyster larvae at two of the main hatcheries that provide Pacific oysters to growers. More recently states such as Maine have convened commissions or task forces to understand the problem and detail ways to counteract it.

And most recently, an article in the journal Nature Climate Change detailed potential hot spots around the country that could be impacted by rising ocean acid, including California. The study concluded that ocean acidification is a long-term, global problem and that reducing carbon dioxide in the world’s waters “will take decades to accomplish successfully.” Until that happens, local areas will need to undertake measures to adapt to and mitigate the problem.

For the most part, any impact is well in the future.

“We know it’s going to happen in the future, but we don’t yet know the impact,” said Gretchen Hofmann, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of a West Coast panel on addressing ocean acidification.

Even so, Hofmann – who is studying acidification this year in New Zealand – said in an interview that “what happened in the Pacific Northwest made California wake up and take notice.”

It certainly made sea urchin diver Bruce Steele notice.

Steele, of Santa Barbara, dives for the small, spiny animals that look something like underwater hedgehogs and whose roe is harvested for sale at sushi restaurants. While the California coast hasn’t yet experienced the impact seen in the Pacific Northwest, Steele said, “You can’t really just talk about what current conditions are.”

Waters that have come to the ocean’s surface in recent years reflect carbon dioxide that was pushed into the atmosphere decades ago.

“For the next 35 years it’s guaranteed that we will see increasing acidification along the Pacific Coast,” he said. “It’s important to put our binoculars on and look a couple decades into the future.”

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