Washington State has become the first in the nation to convene an expert panel to tackle ocean acidification—a phenomenon driven by fossil fuel emissions and polluted runoff that threatens the Northwest’s shellfish and seafood industry.

(For much more on the problem and what’s driving it, see Sightline’s primer and blog series on Northwest Ocean Acidification.)

In a nutshell, excess carbon dioxide causes oceans to become more acidic, and also removes key building blocks that thousands of species need to build shells and skeletons. This carbon-dioxide-rich water has been linked to massive die-offs in Northwest oyster hatcheries. In laboratory experiments, the shelled animals that struggle or dissolve range from mussels to endangered abalone to cornerstones of the marine food web like krill and pteropods—tiny sea snails that make up more than half of the diet of some young Alaskan pink salmon.

And Northwest waters are on the leading edge of the problem, with some of the most acidic readings taken anywhere in the world’s oceans.

Here’s how panel co-chair Jay Manning put it today:

This has some pretty scary ramifications for what this could mean, both for Puget Sound and our coasts here and globally. I think it’s great that Washington is on the cutting edge of this issue. We’re taking it on before just about anyone else is, and it’s high time.

Washington’s blue ribbon acidification panel, convened by Gov. Chris Gregoire and made up of scientists, local and tribal officials, and seafood industry representatives, has three tasks ahead of it. They expect to have their work done by this fall:

  • Survey the latest science to find out what we know, and don’t know.
  • Set priorities for additional investment in research and monitoring.
  • Craft a set of practical, affordable policy recommendations to address the root causes of acidification or help businesses and natural communities adapt.

The longer-term solution to ocean acidification is to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, cars and industrial sources. That’s proven to be a tough sell, nationally and globally. But local officials have much more control over another source of carbon dioxide in our region’s waters: polluted stormwater runoff (for more on that threat to marine life, see Sightline’s other primer and blog series on stormwater solutions).

Nutrients that run off farms, lawns, streets and from sewage systems can cause algal blooms or excessive plant growth. Carbon dioxide is released when that plant life dies, sinks to the bottom and is consumed by bacteria. And more carbon dioxide in our seas—whether it’s absorbed from the atmosphere or caused by nutrient pollution—adds up to the same problem.

Here’s how panel co-chair Bill Ruckelshaus, former EPA director and go-to guy for solving tough environmental problems, described the issue today:

Washington state is among the first states to take a hard look at this problem. We’re not saying we’ll fix it – Washington alone may not be able to.

Obviously the state of Washington cannot make policy for the nation or the world related to climate change, but the contribution that land-based activities have to increase carbon and increase ocean acidification is something we will be looking at.

Threats from excess carbon dioxide to the region’s shellfish industry (and potentially our commercial fishing fleet) are one of the driving forces behind the panel’s creation. Washington shellfish growers directly and indirectly employ more than 3,200 people and provide an estimated total economic contribution of $270 million per year. In addition, tourists and residents purchase more than 300,000 licenses to harvest clams and oysters from Washington waters, providing more than $3.3 million every year in state revenue.

The panel, which meets for the first time tomorrow, is obviously just getting started and hasn’t reached any conclusions yet. But here’s what participants had to say today about why this emerging problem deserves more attention:

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire:

Washington state has a large stake in addressing ocean acidification. Our shellfish industry employs thousands of people, and brings in millions of dollars to our state on an annual basis. Continued success depends on healthy ocean water. Bill Ruckelshaus, Jay Manning and the other panel members will help find ways to respond to ocean acidification to protect both our economy and our natural resources.

Steve Bloomfield, Mason County Commissioner and shellfish grower:

For eight years now, Washington shellfish growers have witnessed failures of both native and Pacific oysters to naturally set their shells. This panel gives hope for finding cause and effect as well as potential solutions.

John Stein, director of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center:

The economic, social, and environmental costs threaten the way of life for many in our coastal communities and there is much we don’t know about existing and future impacts of acidification.  We commend Washington for this proactive step in convening this panel and examining the current science, and are pleased to participate in the panel.

Bill Dewey, policy and communications director for Taylor Shellfish:

If we don’t begin addressing ocean acidification promptly, the future of shellfish farming and the entire seafood industry is at stake. All our efforts at marine conservation and resource management will prove inadequate if we don’t tackle the most basic problem of all—our acidifying marine waters.

Brad Warren, director of ocean health for Sustainable Fisheries Partnership:

Acidification is a big problem, but the oyster industry has shown we can do a lot to understand its impacts and reduce them. We can also cut the waste streams that cause these changes. This blue ribbon panel can address ocean acidification in Washington and serve as a model for how other states can do the same.