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Ocean Acidification In Washington Still Getting Worse

Ted S. Warren/file
AP Photo
In this 2011 file photo, Marco Pinchot, of Taylor Shellfish Farms, checks an oyster during a transplant operation on the waters of Oyster Bay in the Totten Inlet near Shelton, Wash. Rising acidity levels in the oceans pose a serious threat to shellfish.

It’s been five years since Washington first launched a strategy to tackle ocean acidification. A new report from the state says it’s still getting worse, but advances are being made on how to adapt and mitigate the problem.

The state has renewed its commitment to those pursuits with the report, which updates the the strategic plan by outlining accomplishments over the past 5 years as well as areas of focus needed for continued progress.  Called Ocean Acidification, From Knowledge To Action – Washington State’s Strategic Response, it was released on Wednesday. 

Ocean acidification occurs when the pH level in seawater declines. It is caused by uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so it’s sometimes referred to as 'global warming’s evil twin.' The corrosiveness of the water can be devastating to marine life. There's concern that its effects will go far beyond oysters, all the way up the food chain, to iconic species such as salmon and orcas.

In Washington State, oyster growers first started noticing  the effects of ocean acidification about a decade ago,  in 2008; hatcheries reported that some larvae couldn’t form shells because of the more corrosive water. That put the state’s $270-million dollar shellfish industry at risk and the led to the formation of a Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Now regulators and scientists are building on that strategy.

“And there’s little question in my mind that Washington state is literally leading the world on ocean acidification – on understanding it and taking action to do something about it,” said Jay Manning, who co-chaired the original panel and now chairs the Puget Sound Leadership Council.

He says Washington  was front and center at the latest round of climate talks in Bonn, Germany. Many other states and countries are looking to efforts and strategies here to inform their policies and plans.

Manning says ocean acidification will continue to worsen as long as humans keep emitting carbon. We also need to work on reducing nutrient runoff from shoreline areas; scientists have confirmed it also increases the corrosiveness of the water and harms marine life.

But in the meantime, scientists and policymakers here have been working to adapt. For example, we now have an extensive monitoring system that can predict when and where more acidic water is coming in, so hatcheries can prepare and protect their investments.  And researchers are looking at ways to use strategic growing of kelp and eelgrass to help absorb carbon in trouble spots, such as on Hood Canal, which now has some of lowest pH levels in the world.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to