Experts paint sobering potential for sea change

Winter surf is seen in Yachats. Experts continue to grapple with acidification and its impacts to Pacific Ocean ecosystems. (Photo by Bret Yager)

NEWPORT — In today’s changing world of climate change, it might not seem unusual to see a room with 40 Lincoln County residents at the Visual Arts Center overlooking Nye Beach on a windless, rainless evening to talk about biochemistry, the atmosphere and oceanographic sciences.

The MidCoast Watersheds Council monthly meeting was all about pteropods, pelagic snails, corrosive sea water, pitted and wonky oyster larvae shells, with large doses of talk about Newport’s and the entire Oregon coast’s economic threats caused by increased ocean acidification.

Caren Braby, manager for Oregon’s Marine Resources Program, is a biochemist and biologist with a self-professed passion for all invertebrates who gave the listeners a caveat: “I’m going to relate some pretty gloomy things in this presentation, but I will end it with some bright spots, some hope, solutions.”

The attendees were introduced to the basic chemistry of ocean acidification and hypoxia with a 13-minute video: “Ocean Acidification – Changing Waters On The Oregon Coast” – sponsored by Oregon Fish and Wildlife, OSU College of Earth, Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, OSU’s College of Science, Sea Grant Oregon and the Turner Trust.

“The ocean may look the same, but the water is changing, especially on the Oregon coast,” said Francis Chan, an associate professor and senior researcher in Oregon State University’s Department of Integrative Biology.

It’s all tied to the amount of carbon the ocean is absorbing largely due to fossil fuel burning and deforestation.

“Carbon is changing ocean chemistry faster than it has the last million years,” Chan said.

Tying the negative impacts of human development, consumption and resource harvesting on the environment to lower Ph in our waters is depressing and challenging. For Braby, who’s big on “focusing on Oregon … describing the problem,” ocean acidification threatens the Oregon Coast socially, culturally, economically and recreationally.

For instance, the Dungeness crab industry is Oregon’s single most valuable commercial fishery. While the sea snails are the building blocks for salmon and other marine species food webs, acidification affects all shell-building species, including the iconic crab.

The threats Braby listed — plus the fact lawmakers are concerned with the state’s rural communities — drove the Oregon Legislature to follow the lead of marine scientists and stakeholders such as the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua & Siuslaw Indians, the shellfish industry, commercial fishing groups, conservation organizations and others to create in 2017 the Oregon Coordinating Council on Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia (SB 1039).

Both holders of doctorates, Jack Barth, director of Marine Studies Initiative-OSU, and Brady are the OAH Council’s co-chairs. 

For Braby, acidification, hypoxia and harmful algal blooms are a triple whammy that could be the tipping points in this coast’s livelihood, lifestyle and environmental, economic and cultural longevity.

“Even if we stop releasing carbon dioxide today, there will still be a 30-to-35-year increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean upwelling from deep within the ocean,” Braby told the audience.

This lag time will affect the ocean’s acidity level, causing more acidification. How much, we don’t know.

The deep-ocean conveyor belt brings to the Oregon coast cold water, called upwellings. That water comes from deep in the ocean and carries more nutrients that sustain ocean life. However, bad comes with the good – that water has less oxygen and tends to be acidified. Taking decades to travel to the West Coast, this water last touched the atmosphere decades earlier, when CO2 levels were lower than today. So future upwellings will carry the “memory” of today’s annual increases in CO2.

The hypoxia – dead zones – is basically less oxygen in large areas of the ocean. Much of the oxygen is displaced by harmful nutrient runoff or sedimentation, as well as algal blooms. However, OSU is looking at complex climate change elements, including wave and eddy action in the oceans.

Brady emphasized that biotoxins in several algae species – commonly known as a red tide -- closed fisheries in 2015. The state’s scientific and commercial fisheries are looking at how to mitigate the impacts to clams, crabs, oysters and other commercial species along the food web.

“A massive hypoxic event caused the halibut to go away in both Washington and Oregon,” Braby stated.

Add to that acidification’s effects on young salmon.

“Research shows ocean acidification could affect salmon’s ability to smell, which the fish rely on to avoid predators and navigate to their natal rivers.”

This is a global problem, but Braby and others caution Oregonians to not take the “we can’t do anything to solve this because India and China are causing it” approach.

Brady emphasized socializing these issues through outreach and communication. She admits that scientists haven’t always been good at talking to the public, but Braby is armed to continue these sorts of public outreach events to get the message out.

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