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Point of View: Souring oceans

Growers, states lead research effort while Congress stalls

Brad Warren, a former National Fisherman regional editor, later served as editor and publisher of Pacific Fishing. He now runs the Global Ocean Health Program, a joint initiative of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and the National Fisheries Conservation Center - Photo by Laura Lee Dobson
By Brad Warren
November 01, 2012

Don’t tell shellfish farmers we have plenty of time to take action on ocean acidification. Once they learned that the world’s souring oceans were rapidly dissolving young shellfish that grow up to become millions of dinners, producers on the West Coast began improvising tools to protect their livelihoods — and their customers’ supplies. East Coast producers are now taking the same tack. This autumn brought some notable progress, in which I am proud to play a small part.

Fishermen and growers are enlisting coastal states to help protect seafood production. They are also drawing marine scientists into partnerships that have moved far beyond pointy-headed investigations of ocean chemistry. These monitoring and research collaborations make it possible, for now, for many growers to adapt to changing water conditions and stay in business. Similar collaborations could well aid many wild fisheries in the future.

On Nov. 27, Washington’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification will deliver recommendations for protecting the state’s shellfish industry and marine ecosystems from this devastating sea change. This effort began a year ago, when shellfish growers and treaty Native American fishing tribes championed our proposal to create the panel. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire quickly embraced the plan, making her state the first to tackle the threat to global seafood supplies and the 1 million U.S. jobs they support. 

California has now tasked a marine science advisory committee to produce its own guidance for state leaders. Virginia has started a monitoring program to help shellfish hatcheries diagnose and avoid catastrophic larval mortality that erupted recently in their Chesapeake Bay facilities. In May 2012, Alaska legislators appropriated $2.7 million for ocean acidification monitoring and research, in a state that produces more than half of all U.S. seafood landings. More state acidification initiatives are expected soon. 

Shellfish producers are driving hard because they must. For years, the U.S. Congress and the United Nations have been all but frozen in the headlights of the global carbon-pollution crisis. Shellfish hatcheries, and the farmers who rely on them for seed to grow, cannot afford the luxury of inaction. 

“I don’t think we have five years to fool around with this,” says Rob Saunders, owner of Island Scallops, a well-established hatchery that supplies farmers in British Columbia. “I think we have a couple of years.” 

Corrosive waters began killing larvae at Island Scallops in 2009, and in 2010 it got much worse. “We couldn’t grow anything. It was all dying on us,” says Saunders. Like hatchery owners across the border in Washington and Oregon, Saunders rolled up his sleeves and began developing tools to adapt — mainly by monitoring to detect “bad seawater” and adjusting hatchery practices to avoid bathing larvae in it. Washington’s Blue Ribbon Panel is preparing recommendations to field-test more tools that may help producers and resource managers adapt, remediate damage to productive marine habitats, reduce local sources of waste that amplify acidification and hypoxia in coastal waters and build public awareness.

During the last week of September, leading ocean acidification researchers gathered for a global symposium in Monterey, Calif. The X Prize Foundation announced a new “ocean health” prize to encourage development of better marine sensor systems to help speed our response to this crisis. Google unveiled a new “ocean acidification tour” developed with marine scientists (online at http://bit.ly/SFB2012_PointOfView).

Are these actions enough? No, but they are necessary steps. We must protect shellfish production — and where possible, marine food webs that sustain nearly all other seafood — while politicians and industrialists dither and stall about tackling the defining pollution problem of our time. Dr. Joan Kleypas of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a renowned acidification researcher, summed up the scientific consensus last month in Monterey: “The root cause is a carbon dioxide habit that causes multiple health issues in the ocean. Until we can kick the habit, we have to buy time.”

Brad Warren, a former National Fisherman regional editor, later served as editor and publisher of Pacific Fishing. He now runs the Global Ocean Health Program, a joint initiative of the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and the National Fisheries Conservation Center.

November 2012 - SeaFood Business   

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