SEATTLE- Does the nation need a national strategy on rising levels of acidity in the oceans? And can that strategy protect tens of thousands of jobs in the American fishing industry?
U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell, (D) Washington and Mark Begich, (D) Alaska, are calling for such a strategy based on data from an expanding network of buoys that will monitor ocean chemistry and acidity levels.
Scientists say as much as 25% of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the the world's oceans. That growing carbon content is making that water increasingly acidic.
The Senators met with scientists and engineers at the Western Regional Center of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab. Inside the buoy shop, the state of the art technology was on display to monitor acid and carbon levels in critical fisheries including the Gulf of Alaska and off the coast of Washington state. Both Senators Cantwell and Begich are members of the Senate Oceans Subcommittee.
But Chris Meinig, Director of PMEL's Engineering Development Division says there are only 16 buoys and devices available right now with long term monitoring equipment.
To date, that's not nearly enough, said Meinig.
Ocean acidification is already having measurable impacts.
By 2009, our production for oyster larvae was off by 75% in our hatchery, said Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms, based in Shelton.
Dewey says the larvae numbers started dropping in 2005, as ocean water was pumped into the hatchery as it had been for decades. But starting in 2005, Taylor Shellfish noted that the chemistry of that water had changed, and had become acidic enough that billions of larvae could not begin the shell forming process, so the larvae died. Now the hatchery can buffer that acidity by adding sodium carbonate and balance the PH in the water.
In the controlled environment of the hatchery the larvae are thriving again. But once those larvae become juvenile oysters, they're transferred to oyster beds where the current levels of acidity won't kill them as their shells are thick enough. One question for Taylor Shellfish is what will happen to more mature shellfish if the acidity levels continue to rise.
Then there's the question about what's happening to wild shellfish struggling to grow in Puget Sound and elsewhere that don't have somebody to step in and balance the acidity level in the water. While we may not eat those shellfish directly, they are part of the food chain and that eventually leads to other fish humans eat, or won't have available to eat in the future.
How much a larger, or even global network of buoys will cost is now an open question. Sen. Cantwell expects to be given a number to start with by the end of this year.
So what we're asking for is a national plan, said Cantwell. Tell us what are the most economically sensitive areas, where this technology needs to be deployed.