Photo courtesy of Daniel Bennett/Blue Ribbon Commission on Ocean Acidification

Sensitive. Washington shellfish growers say ocean acidification threatens their lucrative industry, which is built on species such as this Pacific oyster.

Washington State Targets Pollutants that Lead to Ocean Acidification

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

In the first state-level action of its kind, the governor of Washington today announced that her state will try to protect valuable shellfish industries and marine life from ocean acidification. Responding to a report that she requested, Governor Chris Gregoire said she has directed state agencies to take steps to reduce the pollutants that contribute to acidification. She also plans to ask the state legislature to establish a new acidification research center at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle.

"A healthy ocean is critical to our health and our coastal economies," Gregoire said today at a Seattle event marking the release of the report by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Gregoire created the panel earlier this year to examine the implications of dropping pH levels in seawater, a trend caused by the ocean's absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Researchers estimate that rising carbon emissions have increased the ocean's acidity by 30% since preindustrial times, threatening some fish and shell-growing creatures. The issue became particularly important in 2007, when the state's lucrative shellfish industry realized that increasingly acidic coastal waters were killing billions of farmed clam and oyster larvae. Researchers say that Washington's problems—the result of both global patterns and more local problems related to air pollutants and contaminated storm runoff—are a harbinger of what the rest of the world can expect as acidification increases.

"Washington State will need to respond vigorously to ocean acidification if we are going to avoid significant and possibly irreversible losses," concluded the report from the Blue Ribbon Panel, which was co-chaired by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief William Ruckelshaus. It includes 42 recommendations for state action, including calls for stronger regulation of carbon emissions and other land-based pollutants that contribute to acidification.

Those ideas are likely to be unpopular with the state's agricultural and industrial interests. The report acknowledged that "[t]he cost of responding to ocean acidification may be substantial," but noted that it is "still far less than the costs of inaction."

Washington's shellfish industry generates nearly $300 million in annual revenues and supports some 3200 jobs, the report says. In addition, more than one-third of the marine species living in the state's Puget Sound are calcifiers (shell-builders), meaning they could be especially sensitive to rising acidity. To better understand the threat, the report says the state should fund research and monitoring programs aimed at detailing local factors that contribute to acidification, with an eye to developing new acidification forecasts, adaptation strategies, and pollution controls.

"The relative importance of these local sources -- mostly wastewater and stormwater containing nitrates -- is not currently well understood," says panel co-chair Jay Manning, a former head of Washington's environmental protection agency. "Our most urgent recommendation is to develop a better understanding of the magnitude of these sources, and if they prove to be significant, act immediately to reduce loading." Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says "this report really draws attention to a problem that exists internationally but that has really hit hard right here in the state of Washington."

Gregoire, a Democrat who is leaving office in January, has signed an executive order that directs state agencies to begin assessing pollution issues, with help from the federal EPA. And her budget request to the legislature, to be released next month, will include $3.3 million to implement the report's recommendations and establish a new center for ocean acidification at UW.

Those moves are getting good reviews from the conservation community. "Washington State is now on the front lines of the fight," Julia Roberson, director of the ocean acidification program for Ocean Conservancy, said in a statement. "The panel's recommendations should be a wake-up call to all coastal states and the many businesses that depend on a healthy ocean."

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