On Stranger Tides: Ocean Acidification’s Impact on the California Coast
2016, High School, Prose
Thick, grey fog blankets the San Francisco coast. A boat perches precariously on the crests of swelling waves before crashing down to the wave troughs. At the helm, crabber John Mellor stands with hands planted firmly on the wheel. He stares warily ahead as waves rock his fishing vessel. “I’m trying to, you know, get my kid through college, and I’m a full-time single father…my whole life depends on there being a healthy crab fishery,” Mellor haltingly says. His voice is tinged with vulnerability and uncertainty as he gazes out at a stormy sea and an ambiguous future (Ocean Conservancy).
Along the United States West Coast, there are multitudes of commercial fishermen like Mellor, whose lives depend on the wellness of marine life. For those of us living along the shores of California, the threats of ocean acidification are becoming increasingly apparent. Ocean acidification is occurring at an alarming rate because our seas, massive carbon sinks that absorb and store atmospheric CO2, is absorbing too much too fast. Discovered in the 1980s and named in 2003, ocean acidification is a new topic, and much is still unknown about the magnitude of its effects (Kolbert 68). However, the United States West Coast may prove to be a forecaster for the ramifications of ocean acidification, as its geography makes it the among the first in the world to encounter acidification-related issues like shell dissolution among organisms with calcium carbonate shells. Ocean acidification is linked to much change in the West Coast environment, and despite its newness in the scientific world, we must take action to slow acidification by reducing carbon inputs in the water, and find ways to help marine life adapt to this challenge.
Ocean acidification is bringing change to our ecosystems at a rate unrivaled in human history. Throughout most of our Earth’s timeline, changes in our oceans’ pH occur very, very slowly. A 0.1 change in pH would be a big, but normal event that typically spanned across hundreds of thousands of years. However, as reported by Mary Patyten, research writer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in the last 200 years this 0.1 change has already taken place. It is a disturbing event that brings unprecedented, unpredictable consequences (Patyten) and has already begun impacting organisms with calcium carbonate structures. A study funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also called NOAA, found that pteropods, a type of zooplankton, were declining on California’s coast because their carbonate shells were weakened by the acidic water. The study concluded that “the incidence of severe shell dissolution has already more than doubled relative to pre-industrial conditions and could increase to…70% by 2050” (Bednaršek et al). This is especially troubling as, according to NOAA, pteropods are a food source for many organisms “from tiny krill to whales and…North Pacific juvenile salmon” (“What is Ocean Acidification?”). Because pteropods are near the base of the food chain, higher pteropod mortality rates would affect the abundance and health of many organisms, including the endangered whales and salmon of the U.S. West Coast. A drastic decline in such species would have consequences reverberating all the way up the food chain, even impacting the fish we eat.
As can be deduced, ocean acidification’s added strain to the already stressed seafood industry would be devastating to communities along the West Coast that rely on seafood for income. Dr. Sarah Cooley, director of the Ocean Acidification Program at Ocean Conservancy, writes about acidification’s impact on the Dungeness crab, which supports a $212 million industry in California–as well as fishermen like John Mellor. After fisheries were shut down because of toxic acid found in crabs, “NOAA research shows that…larvae exposed to ocean acidification in the laboratory develop slowly, and more of them die before adulthood,” she writes. This is a troubling prospect coupled by results from a UCLA study showing that Pseudonitschia algae, the food source for crabs that sickens humans, produced more toxic acid under simulated ocean acidification (Cooley). This does not bode well for shellfish and fishing industries along the West Coast, as it could mean further losses to companies already struggling with ocean pollution and dwindling fish populations. In addition, ocean acidification is and will bring change all along the West Coast, which is a challenge in and of itself. According to Dr. Weisberg, executive director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research, these changes to our lifestyles are coming fast, because the West Coast is geographically very close to ocean upwellings that bring the most acidic water-deep ocean water-to our shores. Strong, close currents are pushing corrosive water as far in as West Coast estuaries, where delicate balance will almost surely be thrown into disarray. Ocean acidification is even more problematic, Weisberg adds, because these upwellings affect the entire West Coast, not just a localized area (Weisberg). Whereas some other issues can be resolved by isolating the contaminant or bringing in solutions from similar ecosystems, there is no effective way to keep acidic water from reaching the shores. Because the entire coast is imperiled, all coastal ecosystems in the region are at a relatively even playing field in terms of dealing with acidification; due to the modern nature of the problem, there are almost no predecessors in our scientific history to reference in finding solutions to this issue. This problem is already at our doorstep, and along the rest of the West Coast, we must be alert to the devastating impact acidification will have on our Pacific waters.
Although ocean acidification is already impacting communities along the coast, it is alarming that we have very little data to accurately predict the scale of its impact. Weisberg relates that “70 percent of our scientific papers written on ocean acidification have been published in the last four years” (Weisberg). Such numbers reflect just how new ocean acidification is in scientific understanding. However, though we have comparably little data on this issue, what we currently know about the issue enough to sound alarm bells among the scientific community. Corroded carbonate shells are only the beginning. Studies conducted on other sea life are already affirming concerns of acidification’s unpredictability. Perhaps this is the most worrying aspect of ocean acidification. Scripps Institute of Oceanography professor Dr. David Checkley, who has conducted numerous studies on fish and ocean acidification’s effect on fish development, emphasizes that we should be alarmed at the rate this phenomenon is happening, because “we can’t predict its consequences” on other organisms and because the data that we do have today is nearly “all…from the laboratory, with no clear-cut results from nature” to fully understand how ocean acidification will affect organisms without carbonate (Checkley). To make matters worse, scientists are not sure how other existing environmental issues like global warming, pollution, and unsustainable fishing, will be exacerbated by ocean acidification. Although we can’t predict everything, we are sure of this: it is vital that we take greater action to study and prepare ourselves for this pending issue. It is not enough to just observe; as Checkley agrees, we must take action while we still can.
Fortunately, we still have time to brace ourselves for the worst and work to possibly keep the worst from arriving. In terms of finding a solution, Dr. Checkley believes that the “main and most important action needed is to reduce the rate of emission of CO2 into the atmosphere by humans” (Checkley). Reducing carbon emissions, as Checkley suggests, would require government involvement as well as industrial movements to better regulate how much carbon and nutrients are released into the atmosphere and water. This is currently a method that has proven effective in curbing algal blooms. Other scientists agree with this course of action; according to The West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science, or OAH, Panel’s three-year study, “upgrade[ing]…wastewater treatment plants or investment in water reuse could be incentivized to design facilities that reduce nutrient discharges” (Boehm 7). In order to implement such a movement, further research pinpointing locations where nutrients are being released into ocean water on the West Coast is required. Another approach is to invest in the novel idea of removing CO2 from seawater by planting seagrasses to absorb CO2. One study suggests that, “costs of seagrass restoration programmes may be fully recovered by the total CO2 captured in societies with a carbon tax in place” (Duarte 7). In other words, the returns of seagrass restoration will cover the social costs of CO2 damage; economic costs of the seagrass method can be covered by implementing a tax on carbon emissions. Thus, the seagrass approach has many social and economic benefits. This method is a particularly exciting development as it can involve local communities and may also serve to provide hands-on education about acidification. With rigorous monitoring and planning, seagrass planting could become an innovative answer to ocean acidification. The final aspect of reducing carbon exposure is to revise our outdated water quality standards. According to Weisberg, the current water quality criteria is that pH must be above 6.5 (Weisberg). Not only is this an extremely low standard, but it also sets no safety net to keep pH from dropping at rates devastating to marine life. If just a 0.1 change in pH was enough to cause panic in the shellfish industry, how much more destructive would a two-unit drop in pH be? It is a question we are afraid to see answered in nature. Ultimately, reducing carbon exposure involves both tried and innovative ideas. Caps on carbon and nutrient emissions, seagrass planting, and updating our old standards are extremely viable options in helping us combat acidification.
Aside from attempting to reduce carbon emissions, there are other ways for us to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification. They fall chiefly under the umbrella of enhancing marine life’s adaptability. These options follow two main courses. One, as Weisberg shares, is to reduce other stressors that can exacerbate and add to the problems of acidification (Weisberg). Efforts like beach cleanups, reducing plastic bag usage, and many others, should be continued. Making a greater stride to decrease the effects of other stressors will help lower the severity of the situation, giving marine life some breathing room to adjust to the ocean’s changes. We need to closely monitor changes in ocean chemistry and marine life not just to predict how acidification will impact aquatic organisms, but also to determine which efforts for mitigating acidification work effectively. The scientists of the OAH Panel are especially insistent on stablishing research and monitoring strategies. Besides recommending that workshops and forums be formed to better organize research efforts, the OAH Panel also emphasizes that “fishery and ecosystem models,” which are used by fisheries to determine how much fish they can catch each season, “will be crucial for understanding and predicting the full extent of OAH impacts” as the data collected by the fish industry records patterns in the fish population (Boehm 23). Although as of now, research by fisheries is conducted in the mind-set of “how much [pollution] can we take?” (Weisberg), the OAH Panel is optimistic about working with the industry to improve fish management models so that fisheries will be able to maximize their catch while also advancing methods to keep the fish in the oceans thriving for the future.
The final suggestion is to directly interact with the ability of organisms to adapt to acidifying seawater. Weisberg identifies three ways to do this: translocation, breeding programs, and genetic manipulation. Each of these methods are advantageous in their own way, but they come with potential “societal and economic problems,” especially with the last two (Weisberg). Translocation, for example, is the removal of an organism from the area it’s struggling in into more favorable environments. This can cause problems, as some organisms require very specific conditions in order to live. Another concern is that moving organisms in this fashion can unintentionally bring in invasive species that adversely impact its new environment. Breeding programs and selective breeding are costly and may leave organisms more prone to genetic diseases due to smaller gene pools. Genetic manipulation is expensive and remains controversial for similar reasons that breeding programs can be problematic. Fortunately, while these options come with pros and cons, there are also many other options available.
Continuing and improving current ocean pollution programs, as well as extending research past strictly scientific interests are also opportunities to engage the public and private sectors in facing ocean acidification. These many options are extremely important to the future of ocean acidification science.
Ocean acidification is a ticking time bomb. If we remain passive and allow acidification to build up, we may reach a point of no return, where our world will be left irrevocably scarred. The loss of many beautiful, important species, and of people’s way of life, will be only some of the results. Here on the United States West Coast, acidifying waters are a concern growing faster than elsewhere. We must take the initiative while time still remains to slow, maybe even stop, the acidification of our seawater. We can become the pioneers of this new challenge in science. We can reduce CO2 and nutrient emissions, invest in innovative solutions, improve our research, and do so much more to tackle this issue. Ultimately, our efforts boil down to this: we need to raise awareness of this issue. Getting people to understand the urgency of this situation is what unifies us in our fight against ocean acidification. Only then will we be able to stand a chance of weathering the damage that we have wrought.
Crystal: When Michelle invited me to this contest, I said “What? This exists?!” I love the arts, but I’m only just beginning to dive into science, so being able to weave the two together was very exciting for me. That being said, I decided to write this essay on OA through some happy discoveries. I knew from the start I wanted to write about California, as I love the beach. It wasn’t until I discovered Dr. Weisberg’s lecture on OA at the Aquarium of the Pacific that I decided to write on this topic. As I watched him speak through the aquarium’s live streaming, I saw the passion reflected in his words and knew I’d made the right choice. Like Weisberg said, OA is a very new field. I learned so much through his lecture, my email interview with Dr. Checkley, and the studies I read. This issue spoke to me because I saw it as an opportunity to explore more of a topic I would come across as an Environmental Science major at UCSD. Learning about OA’s impact on people like Mellor also motivated me to spread word about OA to help others. I believe that knowledge is power, which is why I wrote an essay connecting the public with OA. A paper that packaged solid information for people, not just scientists, to read is something that I feel can bridge the science with the public. Ultimately, this essay is my way of transforming hard data into a persuasive expression. Michelle: At the beginning of the year, I found out about this contest through a scholarship website. At first, I didn’t really want to enter the contest because I didn’t feel that I was truly passionate enough, or knowledgeable enough, about any of the topics listed to create anything worthwhile. However, after looking through the student galleries, I decided to give it a try. I enlisted my classmate, Crystal, to help me with the project. As we worked on the essay, I began to see how impactful OA truly is to the environment. Articles and videos from Ocean Conservancy showed me how directly people, especially those on the West Coast, are being heavily affected. Through the words of advocates like Sarah Cooley, I began to see the human faces embroiled in conflicts bigger than themselves, the conflicts between business, environmental, political, and Mother Nature’s own interests. Meanwhile, studies such s the one about the seagrass solution showed me how much potential we have to take action. However, the possibility that no action will be taken, and that OA’s waves of change could very well become an unstoppable tidal wave, is extremely alarming; it’s the reason why awareness of the situation is so essential. Crystal and I hope that our essay can help to spread awareness of OA and help the public face the facts before it’s too late.