Changing Planet

Ocean Acidification: It’s Time to Act

“The cost of responding to ocean acidification may be substantial, but it is
still far less than the costs of inaction”

— Bill Ruckelshaus, co-chair Washington Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, November 27, 2012

Consensus is hard. Any time you bring together a range of interests, it’s rare the group can speak in a unified voice and recommend a clear path forward. But that’s exactly what happened yesterday in Washington by its Governor and the state’s Blue Ribbon Panel (BRP) on Ocean Acidification.

The panel  made clear that options exist for tackling ocean acidification. Coastal states and businesses that are dependent upon a healthy ocean now have a road map for action, thanks to Washington’s leadership – and oyster growers in Oregon first sounding the alarm. Ocean acidification is happening now, and we can and should take action.

Comprised of scientists, industry leaders, conservationists and government officials, the BRP reached consensus on a portfolio of actions needed to tackle ocean acidification.

  1. There’s a critical need to reduce carbon emissions. This is the root cause of ocean acidification and Governor Gregoire spoke forcefully about the role we all have to play in tackling this important issue.
  2. We need to work to control other, more local sources of acidification, including nutrient run-off from land.
  3. Additional research and monitoring will be central to informing policy actions and modifying tactics as scientists learn more about how to try to prevent and prepare for ocean acidification. The Governor’s commitment to build a new center for ocean acidification studies at the University of Washington shows how important science will be to tackling this problem.
  4. Improved coordination and collaboration are critical. Scientists must work with affected industries to help them adapt. Ocean and land-based businesses must unite against the common enemy of growing CO2 emissions. Government bodies need to share information and coordinate their responses to stay one step ahead of a rapidly changing ocean. And conservation organizations like Ocean Conservancy must work with our colleagues to help amplify the leading voices from all these sectors so the public understands what is at stake and embraces the actions needed.


None of this will be easy but ocean acidification may very well be the defining ocean issue of our time.

Outgoing Governor Christine Gregoire stood up the BRP last March in response to a major economic catastrophe impacting the state’s oyster farming industry. The oceanic equivalent of the “canary in the coal mine”, oyster survival plummeted starting in 2007. The Whiskey Creek oyster hatchery in neighboring Oregon, which is normally the basis for much of the west coast industry, experienced upwards of 80 percent mortality of juvenile oysters. Without seed to buy, Washington’s industry was nearly brought to its financial knees before scientists determined that highly corrosive, carbon-dioxide-laden water was literally dissolving the baby oyster’s shells.

We’re now unwittingly conducting the world’s largest chemistry experiment. Oysters and other shell building plants and animals are the first animals to bear the brunt of this assault and Washington is on the front lines of the fight.

But oyster shells are only the beginning. The panel’s report shows that ocean acidification will likely threaten much more than Washington’s oyster industry, as the effects of changing ocean chemistry cascade through marine food webs, impacting the ecology and physiology of a wide range of creatures.

Everyone with a vested interest in the ocean needs to take ocean acidification very seriously, for the ocean of tomorrow will be fundamentally different from the ocean of today if we do not.

It’s time to act.

George Leonard is Chief Scientist at Ocean Conservancy. A long-time scuba diver, George knew he wanted to be a marine biologist at the age of 12 when he first watched Jacques Cousteau's TV special on the sleeping sharks of Yucatan in 1975. During his graduate work, he logged over 400 dives in 3 years, studying California's kelp forests, the undersea equivalent of a tropical rain forest.
  • MrD

    The ocean acidification effects being seen today come from the CO2 already emitted into the air, of which only 30% of that “old” CO2 making the oceans 30% more acidic. As the other 70% of the old CO2 in the air makes the oceans even more acidic just what is the solution to that problem. Sure not putting a second deadly dose of CO2 into the patient is a good idea but only if the patient, the oceans, survives the first deadly dose. Perhaps that Haida native village have both the antidote and the solution, treat the already dying patient and convert what is killing mother ocean with acid death by helping the ocean replenish and restore its plankton blooms turning the deadly CO2 overdose into ocean life itself.

  • Tanner Smida

    I think that it is great that we are working toward this goal even though I belive that we should have been working toward it for a long time.

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