Preserving shellfish — and us

The challenge of galvanizing support for cleaning Puget Sound is undercut by the illusion of beauty. Consider the corrosive effect of ocean acidification, which is all but invisible — except for the billions of dying oyster larvae at hatcheries around the Sound.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan toured NOAA’s regional center in Seattle to check out the sensors and high-tech buoys that the agency uses to monitor ocean conditions.

Begich and Cantwell used the event to announce plans to reauthorize legislation that will require NOAA to identify and deploy ocean-acidification sensors where they’re needed most. According to Cantwell’s office, the bill would create the first-ever national ocean acidification-monitoring plan, targeting areas under the greatest threat.

“We need to give researchers the tools they need to help these crab fishermen, fisheries in general, and the shellfish industry to get the most important data so these industries can be protected,” Cantwell said.

Ocean acidification is the result of seawater absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide. That changes the ocean’s chemistry, making it more corrosive to the shells of sea creatures such as oysters, mussels and crab. Research documents a link between increasing ocean acidity and high mortality rates for young oysters and shellfish, which could pose a threat to Washington’s $270 million shellfish economy.

According to NOAA, Washington fisheries are a $1.7 billion industry, supporting 42,000 jobs. Nationally, commercial fishing contributes $70 billion to the U.S. economy and supports 1 million jobs.

Researchers determined that the Northwest die-off that began in 2005 was triggered by low-pH seawater. This acidification, caused largely by fossil fuels and the uptake of carbon dioxide, is strafing the state’s marine economy.

A 2012 state panel co-chaired by Bill Ruckelshaus recommended adapting and remediating for ocean acidification — essentially damage management. Suggestions include developing commercial-scale hatchery designs and water-treatment methods to safeguard larvae along with planting additional vegetation in upland areas.

Other components include reducing local, land-based contributors such as organic carbon and nutrient runoff. That may require sewage-system infrastructure in rural areas adjacent to water (now curtailed by the Growth Management Act.)

Washingtonians will pay now or pay later, as the West Coast recalibrates for a literal sea change.

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