Slight pH Adjustment will Doom Entire Ocean Communities
Reality check – seawater’s lower pH will effect more than vibrant, highly evolved marine ecosystems and all the glorious species that inhabit reefs, mangroves, sea mounts, and island kelp forests.
We’re looking at a 30 percent increase in the ocean’s acidity, something that hasn’t happened for millions of years. The amount of carbon dioxide we’re spewing into the atmosphere is 100 times more than 50 million years ago, and some like University of Washington’s Peter Ward, author of “Under a Green Sky,” believe that it’s more like 250 million years ago when that much CO2 was being released through volcanoes, and, the effect of that over a few hundred years was extinction of over 90 percent of all species.
Scott Doney and Richard Feely (who will be at Spokane Community College’s Lair May 4, speaking at 7 p.m. about his and others’ work on ocean geochemistry and biochemistry) explained to lawmakers in as simple of terms as possible, but with a powerful confidence in his science’s elegance, the following topics to hook that stodgy audience:
- Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change;
- The Changing Ocean Environment;
- Climate Change and Ocean;
- Acidification Impacts on Marine Ecosystems;
- Knowledge Gaps and Ocean Research Priorities;
- Climate Adaptation, Mitigation, and Ocean Management
Harvesting and aqua-farming of mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, scallops) is $2 billion a year industry in the US, and more than $100 million a year for Washington, Oregon and California, but already the ocean’s carbon cycle has been disrupted to the point of lowering the levels of aragonite, essential to the growth of mollusks, crustaceans and corals.
Now, remember sixth grade biology: that food chain moves into a top predator category – accounting for more than 26 percent of the US fisheries’ overall take. It’s basic food web science as those barracuda, marlin, salmon, shark, swordfish, tuna and squid depend on the above calcifier predators.
“What goes around comes around,” said Sarah Cooley, postdoctoral researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Her research is tied to the socioeconomic costs of ocean acidification. Obviously, commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and the protection coral reefs provide shorelines are somewhat easy to calculate – the so-called “ecosystem services” biologist and sustainability filmmaker David Suzuki once calculated on a global scale to be $7-9 trillion each year.
Cooley sees the shoreline protection by coral reefs to be $9 billion a year, but add to the equation 25 to 30 percent of fish who live their juvenile lives in the reefs seeking protection, and the figure jumps to $30 billion a year.
What Scott Doney and Richard Feely were trying to illustrate three years ago was that ocean acidification, ice melt and rising ocean temperatures were already happening, and the ‘business as usual’ approach is more than just misguided; it’s catastrophic and dangerous.
"This strategy will also require a balance between adaptation to climate change and acidification that are unavoidable, and mitigation to reduce the rise in greenhouse gases and resulting impacts,” Doney told the Senate working group.
Way too many fast, big vessels with high-tech gear are rampaging through fisheries and bringing some to near collapse. Eight of the world’s nine largest fisheries are closed and critically near collapse. Some experts say without laws and tough mitigation efforts, the world’s ocean fisheries could be near collapse by 2040.
Do we forget about oceans rising because we’re in Spokane? The president of the Maldives and others looking at island nations’ futures are greatly concerned about the impact of ice melt and thermal expansion on their cultures’ and nations’ futures. Mohammed Nasheed held an underwater summit last year to bring attention to ocean rising tied to climate change and anthropomorphic causation.
While the hour talk with Feely broached a lot of topics, we didn’t get into the so-called giant garbage patch, or Pacific gyre. Much research on plastics affecting the food chain has been conducted, and that plastic swirling garbage vortex bigger than Texas is axiomatic of humanity’s prodigious waste stream. Looking at the complete water column, researchers are finding six times plastic matter than organic matter.
Chris Jordan the well-known “environmental” and human ecology photographer is also working on plastic’s effects on animals, the oceans, us.
This is a topic dear to me since I started off 40 years ago learning how to scuba dive and eventually I ended up majoring in marine biology and worked hard on being a journalist-dive-bum-photographer. Travelling throughout Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the Pacific Baja, the Yucatan and Belizean coasts, and then in Thailand, Vietnam and the Red Sea, I’ve seen first-hand collapsing ecosystems due to man’s greed, waste, and pollution.
Ghost nets miles long – monofilament drift nets – have snagged millions of fish and air-breathing mammals like sea lions, small whales, turtles. Several billion tons of sardine and anchovy stocks are netted and ground up each year to feed an unsustainable farmed salmon industry. Taking those species out of the mix has major effects on the food web.
In a world where a beached sleek bottlenose or sturdy orca whale is considered a bio-hazard due to the lethal levels of PCBs and other persistent chemicals, we have to more than shudder at man’s huge footprint on everything.
One angle is the socio-economic model Cooley studies: “The world is probably going to march on without these species, but it might be darn uncomfortable. “The natural communities are going to be very, very different. And different might be OK—maybe. There still is an ecosystem to be had. But a lot of the things that we really enjoy, that our communities depend on, are not going to be there. We may be able to find other awesome things about the new communities, but chances are, options will be limited.”
The more important angle for me and others, however, is that we can’t put a monetary price on a whale or coral reef and all its non-human inhabitants. It’s the intrinsic value we have to embrace and consider; that this earth has these complex ecosystems and niches for reasons, and taking one out, or a dozen, makes no sense if we are to regard biological life as highly unique in this universe and beyond.