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More than words for “Our Ocean”

Overfishing. Ocean acidification. Pollution. Not such uplifting subjects when it comes to the state of marine environments. Nevertheless, scientists who participated in a meeting held in June in Washington, D.C. to address these topics for policymakers, practitioners and the public came away with a positive view.

The conference, Our Ocean 2014, was sponsored by the US State Department and brought together scientists, policy makers, business people, and even Hollywood stars to discuss the latest in ocean research and what to do to save marine environments. The panels at the meeting, which can be watched online, included the state of the science on topics such as trends in key fish stocks, nutrient pollution in the marine environment, and ocean acidification.

“I was excited to be asked to attend,” says Scott Doney, a research scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (US), and the chair of the session on ocean acidification. “The meeting was meant to connect with policymakers at the State Department, and also private companies, nongovernmental organizations and others.” Doney points out that foreign and environmental ministers attended, as well as heads of state from several countries. President Obama also addressed the meeting, and announced the proposed expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, making it the largest Marine Protected Area in the world.

The panel of experts on ocean acidification included Carol Turley of Plymouth Marine Laboratory (UK) and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland (Australia), both of whom have been involved in work related to Future Earth, such as the SOLAS-IMBER working group on ocean acidification. The two researchers outlined what is known about how the ocean is changing because of rising levels of atmospheric CO2: As the ocean picks up some of this CO2, its surface waters become more acidic, measured as a decrease in pH.

More acidic waters challenge the physiology and energy balance in shellfish and other organisms, meaning that they may grow more slowly, or that some species may have a harder time making their calcium carbonate skeletons and shells.

“It is cold waters that take up more CO2 – hence the pH of the polar oceans is lower than the tropical waters. However, the whole ocean has already taken up about 30% of the CO2 emitted to the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, so ocean pH has decreased across the whole global ocean from the tropics to the poles,” Turley explains.

Researchers have been reporting on ocean acidification and the state of the ocean for the past decade, but others, particularly in the shellfish industry, are now seeing direct effects from the changes, something that policymakers need to understand, Doney says. He says he was pleased to be joined on the panel by Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms, a commercial fishery in Washington State (US), who has seen firsthand the impacts of ocean acidification, and the difference that scientific research and monitoring can make.

Dewey said the Taylor Shellfish hatchery started seeing problems around 2005, and by 2009 oyster larvae production was down 75%. They initially didn’t know what the problem was, and got in touch with other aquaculture specialists and scientists. Together, they were able to work through the possibilities before discovering that the problem was a change in ocean water chemistry: the waters were becoming more acidic because of a combination of CO2 rising globally, and local changes in wind patterns, water quality, and ocean upwelling. Along the west coast of North America and in a few other places, as in the Pacific Northwest offshore of Washington, colder water from the deeper ocean rises up onto the ocean shelf, and it can be naturally more acidic.

Today, the company monitors the chemistry of seawater coming into the hatchery, adding sodium carbonate to counteract acidifying waters. They also have a site in Hawaii, where the problems have been slower to appear, as they are far away from the upwelling waters. They are also researching selective breeding, and trying to find new strains of shellfish, less sensitive to ocean acidification.

Other panelists included a reef specialist from Palau, a small island nation that has committed to finding ways to survive the seemingly inevitable impacts of ocean acidification. Palau will expand its marine protected areas, and find and protect places that are naturally more acidic in order to create refugia for coral reefs that can survive more acidic oceans.

Palau is “trying to do it sensibly,” Doney says, introducing new policies while “trying to balance the local fishing community needs.” And while local policies are crucial, Doney says he was glad to hear the message from US Secretary of State John Kerry: the solution to ocean acidification is a series of national and global energy policies. In his comments at the meeting, Kerry said that at least half the CO2 humans emit comes from stationary coal or fossil fuel burning sources, without carbon capture or other controls, and therefore the solutions must come from the world’s already huge and growing energy market – where there are opportunities to make a change. Part of the action plan drawn up at the end of the meeting included calls for a new agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce carbon emissions.

When asked about the conundrum of whether to present solutions to adapting to climate change and ocean acidification, versus arguing for halting climate change, Doney replied, “It seems silly for us to pull in people to say that, but even under the most optimistic scenarios … we have not yet found a way to stabilize emissions, let alone CO2 in the atmosphere. We have to find a way [to adapt]. There are a lot of people depending on it … particularly at the local level, [where] there are things that can be done. Ocean acidification is a global problem, but it can be exacerbated by local conditions.” He cited the report by the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification released in 2012, which highlighted how poor local water quality can contribute to acidifying waters, saying “a big topic at the conference was nutrients running off from agriculture and causing eutrophication – that’s a local tractable problem”. Solutions include land-management practices such as erosion and runoff controls, and preventing fecal material from washing downstream from cattle or other animals, and even educating individuals about not applying too much fertilizer to their lawns.

“In essence, the ocean is the battleground of climate change now,” Turley says. “It’s absorbing about 30% of the CO2 and 94% of the heat from global warming, both a product of burning fossil fuels.” She hopes the Our Ocean 2014 meeting is “a first step in the US reducing CO2 emissions”, noting the “really strong” statements from Kerry on acidification and protecting the ocean.

Perhaps more eye-catching for the public was the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio, who pledged to donate US$7 million for ocean conservation. The actor is a member of several ocean-related not-for-profit organizations, including Oceans5. Other commitments included US$9 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for an ocean acidification monitoring network.

Turley said the meeting “was extraordinary, really, and I hope it makes a difference”. It remains to be seen what will come of the meeting's promises, and how policy makers and others will meet the goals set out in the conference outcomes.

Further resources

Read or watch comments made by US Secretary of State John Kerry and others here: