Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Those Shellfish Are Talking to You. Can You Hear Them?

The eastern Pacific, from the Bering Sea to northern California, has been one of the world's last remaining great fisheries.  It's a band of coastal ocean famous for its abundant salmon, cod, halibut and tuna but it's also known for its bounty of crab of several varieties plus shellfish including scallops, clams, mussels and oysters.

Now a lot of that resource is at severe risk from our greenhouse gas emissions that are acidifying the ocean habitat.  The acid levels in our waters have increased by 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  That's the kiss of death for shellfish.

Among the sea species most vulnerable to acidification are shellfish, because a build-up of acid in waters prevents species developing their calcium shells. Alaska’s salmon stocks are also at risk as one of the main ingredients of a salmon diet are pteropods, small shell creatures

Jeremy Mathis, an NOAA oceanographer and a lead author of the study, told the 
Alaska Dispatch News that whereas past reports had focused on the consequences of increased acidification on ocean species, the aim of this one was designed to examine the wider economic impact.

“This is an economic-social study,” Mathis said. “It focuses on food security, employment opportunity, and the size of the economy.”

Mathis said acidification is more likely in Alaskan waters than in many other parts of the world. He explained: “It’s all about geography. The world’s ocean currents end their cycles here, depositing carbon dioxide from elsewhere. The coastal waters of Alaska sit right at the end of the ocean conveyor belt.”

The New York Times reports that billions of baby oysters – known as spat – are dying off the coast of Washington state in the Northwestern U.S.

In May this year, the U.S. government’s major report on climate change, the 
National Climate Assessment, said that waters off the north-west of the country are among the world’s most acidic.

Jay Inslee, governor of Washington, says an industry worth $270 million is at risk. “You can’t overstate what this means to Washington,” he says.

Inslee and many others in Washington State are fighting plans by the coal industry to build large coal ports in the region in order to export to China and elsewhere in Asia.

Here's what we all need to bear in mind.  The Pacific shellfish are the miners' canary of ocean acidification.  When they die off it's the same, no it's actually worse, than the canary dying deep down in the mine.  Ocean acidification threatens all terrestrial life.  As paleontologist Peter Ward documents in his book, Under a Green Sky, ocean acidification can trigger a major extinction event.  It has in the past and it can again.

Those dying shellfish are sending us a message.  When will we start listening?

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