Oceans at risk, a culture at stake

We have seen many significant changes to Washington’s landscape, climate and waters in our lifetime. We have watched with dismay as habitat, salmon runs, and shellfish beds have been lost. Ocean acidification is the most recently recognized of these changes, a serious and immediate threat to our marine resources, one that has developed at an alarming and unprecedented rate.

Salmon and shellfish are at the very core of the Tulalip Tribes’ and other first nations’ culture. More than just traditional food staples and economic health are at risk here. Our very culture is at stake. These Northwest icons and many other marine species and thousands of Washington jobs are in jeopardy and need our protection.

Global warming has melted glaciers, leading to early runoff then drought and sediment-loading problems in our streams and rivers. Another alarming effect is the deterioration of the marine food chain with key links such as plankton and forage fish in decline. Many of the small creatures at the base of the food web need calcium carbonate to build their shells and are especially vulnerable to ocean acidification, which reduces the calcium carbonate available in seawater.

Add these destructive forces together, and the challenge is clear. The Washington State Panel on Ocean Acidification that I served on last year established the troubled future that is inevitable unless we begin adapting to, mitigating and remediating the harmful effects of these combined and accelerating problems.

As panelist Bill Dewey, Communications and Policy Director for Taylor Shellfish Farms, said, “If we don’t begin addressing ocean acidification promptly, I believe the future of shellfish farming and the entire seafood industry is at stake. On our current path, we are consigning our heirs to a world of increasing scarcity and conflict over ocean resources. All our efforts at marine conservation and resource management will prove inadequate if we don’t tackle the most basic problem of all—ocean acidification.”

Frankly, there’s not much we Washingtonians can do by ourselves about the cause of ocean acidification: global CO2 emissions. We contribute such a small amount to the 70 million tons of CO2 that the world pumps into the atmosphere every day. What we can do is be a model for taking thoughtful and responsible action, for educating others about acidification and urging them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We can do what the governor challenged us to do: lead.

And we can do something about the local and land-based sources of pollution. Millions of tons of so-called “nutrients,” primarily nitrogen, pour into Puget Sound every year. Human and animal waste runoff are major sources that result in harmful algae blooms, oxygen depletion and sea life die offs. Reducing these local causes of acidification and other problems is a prime recommendation of the panel.

We have proven and even profitable ways to control this waste. For instance, Tulalip tribal and agricultural leaders collaborated to see whether we might be able to manage farm waste for profit while cleaning up our rivers. We studied successful efforts around the world and put what we learned to use here in Snohomish County. Qualco Energy in Monroe was the result.

Since 2008, the Tulalips have worked with cattle and dairy farmers and others to convert manure and food, brewery, and other bio-waste into energy and fertilizer. Our anaerobic biodigester generates 450 kw hours of green energy, sells the electricity for $25,000 per month to Puget Sound Energy and gets $35,000 monthly in “tipping fees” for using the food waste that otherwise ends up in landfills or waste water treatment plants. We are now studying how we might quantify our achievement and qualify for carbon credits.

The digester also captures the methane that would be released if the waste rotted. (As a greenhouse gas, methane is more than 20 times as potent as CO2.) A valuable byproduct of the process is the dried leftovers that are used to recharge soils, saving farmers about $250,000 a year that they would otherwise spend on fertilizer, soil and amendments. Better nutrient and cost management and increased profitability have helped the dairy farmer to double his herd size. And, of course, we have cleaner water for our salmon and shellfish and children.

One inexpensive way we are creating more wetlands for water storage in Snohomish County is by introducing beavers to reengineer regional hydrology at more than 70 sites. Our Public Works program to deal with the problems that beavers can cause has earned the county national recognition. Beaver dams improve channel geomorphology and the water quality of streams and rivers; moderate stream flow; recharge ground water; and increase summer low flows, producing higher crop yields for farmers.

Virtually every day, we make choices that affect acidification. One option for most home owners is changing the widespread commitment to lawns and the often extensive and expensive care they receive. The environmental costs of lawn care are significant and include the energy required to manufacture, distribute and run mowers, blowers and other equipment; their emissions; contamination and runoff from fertilizers and herbicides; and water depletion. Reducing these upfront and downstream costs is easily within our abilities.

An immediate choice that faces Washington is whether to allow coal mined in Utah and Wyoming to be transported across our state and shipped to Asia. The Tulalip Tribes and other first nations in the Salish Sea are unanimously opposed to this project due to the negative impacts that it would cause locally, regionally and globally. The most ecologically sound action to take with that coal is to leave it in the ground where it sequesters all that carbon and other pollutants. When promoters of the project speak about the jobs that will be created, they neglect to consider the potential jobs lost among those who catch, raise, process and sell seafood.

Another key option is whether we will reverse the continuing loss of habitat. Especially crucial are the estuaries, bays and other near-shore nurseries for marine life. Establishing seagrass and kelp beds can help create productive habitat and also sequester carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. The world has barely begun to tap the potential of salt marshes, seagrass meadows, and kelp forests as carbon sinks and sources of food and fuel. Field tests in Snohomish County could help us move this direction.

One action all Washingtonians can take is to educate themselves and others about ocean acidification. The Department of Ecology website is an excellent place to learn about the subject and the work of the panel: www.ecy.wa.gov/water/marine/oceanacidification.html.

From 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Everett Station, 3201 Smith Avenue, Everett, the Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee will host a seminar featuring presentations by three members of the Washington State Panel on Ocean Acidification: Terrie Klinger, University of Washington School of Marine &Environmental Affairs ecologist; Shallin Busch, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research ecologist; and Brad Warren, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and National Fisheries Conservation Center Director of Global Ocean Health.

I hope many of you will be able to join us Thursday. It is essential for Washington to learn about ocean acidification and then move from knowledge to action. Come do your part.

Terry Williams is Commissioner of Fisheries and Natural Resources and Director of the Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources Treaty Rights Office. He was one of 28 members of the Washington State Panel on Ocean Acidification, which released its 42 recommendations November 27, 2012.

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