Coastal Preservation, Ocean Friendly Gardens, Ocean Protection, Water Quality
December 21 2017

Washington State Re-Ups Leadership in Addressing Ocean Acidification

by Gus Gates

Surfrider Foundation chapters and staff in the Pacific Northwest have been very active over the past several years addressing the challenges of ocean acidification (OA) through our education and outreach efforts, advocacy, citizen science monitoring, nutrient reduction practices, and representation of recreational ocean users on stakeholder advisory bodies. For an in depth background on the issue of OA and how our various initiatives and work directly relate to it, read more here.

Background on OA: Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over the past two centuries have altered the chemistry of the world’s oceans, threatening the health of coastal ecosystems and industries that depend on the marine environment. This fundamental chemical alteration is known as ocean acidification (OA), a phenomenon driven by the oceans absorbing approximately one-third of atmospheric CO2 generated through human activities. Many life processes are sensitive to carbon dioxide and pH. Research shows calcifiers are particularly affected by ocean acidification. Calcifiers are marine organisms that depend on the mineral calcium carbonate to make shells, skeletons, and other hard body parts. Ocean acidification makes an essential component of calcium carbonate – the carbonate ion – more scarce. As a result, calcifiers have to use more energy to pull carbonate ions out of the water to build their shells. Calcium carbonate also dissolves more easily as acidity increases. These changes can result in slower growth and/or higher mortality among calcifiers, especially in shellfish larvae and juvenile shellfish.

While it’s important to recognize that this is a global issue largely resulting from the increased amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) being pumped into the atmosphere and absorbed by the ocean, it’s also important to understand that research also shows that local contributions of nutrients also play a role in exacerbating the impacts of OA at a local scale.

Infographic courtesy of Seattle Aquarium.

Oregon: Surfrider chapters and staff in Oregon recently launched a citizen science project in partnership with Oregon State University to help highlight scientific research and bring a greater depth of understanding to ocean acidification and it’s impacts along the Oregon coast. The goal was to make scientific data accessible & understandable in an effort to raise awareness of serious ocean acidification issues. One of the really cool ways that they've accomplished this is through a innovative and visually appealing approach called storyboard mapping, check it out here.

Washington Releases Updated Action Plan: In the five years since Washington’s Blue Ribbon Panel’s 2012 recommendations, there have been significant scientific advances. The Marine Resources Advisory Council (which includes Surfrider Staff and Board representation) saw a need to re-evaluate the 2012 strategy, resulting in this 2017 Addendum to the Blue Ribbon Panel’s 2012 report. The Addendum recently released is a companion report that expands upon the 2012 work.

“Ocean acidification threatens Washington shellfish, fisheries industries, and the coastal communities that depend on them,” stated Governor Jay Inslee. “Our state is on the front lines of responding to these threats through the leadership of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification and the Marine Resources Advisory Council. We must keep up the momentum and leadership and continue to take bold action to protect these resources for future generations.”

The action plan is held up as an example, not only across the country but across the globe, as an example of how to move from problem to solution and from policy to action. As Washington looks forward, they continue to innovate. From investigating blue carbon, kelp cultivation, and shell recycling opportunities to supporting development of state-of-the-art ocean acidification monitoring equipment, they're looking at every available possibility to take a strong stand against ocean acidification. With the action plan in hand, it has also created the opportunity for new dialogue and partnership among a wide variety of players, 
leveraging the knowledge, finances, and resources to be forward-thinking and holistic in their efforts.

It is well understood that increased global carbon emissions are the root cause of ocean acidification. However, the latest research shows that local, land-based pollution and natural processes, such as stormwater and other types of polluted runoff, also play a role in the increasing acidity of our waters. This is why more Ocean Friendly Gardens are needed throughout our watersheds to act like a sponge and filter the harmful pollutants before entering our watersheds and ocean. When seawater becomes more acidified, oysters, clams, mussels and other species have trouble building the shells needed for survival. Scientists today expect ocean acidification to impact many other species that the region depends on, such as salmon and Dungeness crab.

Jefferson Raingarden Photo credit: Lucas Hart, Northwest Straits Commission

“As a scientist, it is impressive to see so much leadership in our state and also partnering between individuals from science, policy, industry, and management perspectives. As well, there is strong partnering among scientists. This collaboration, coupled with information sharing via this report, ensures an efficient use of funds and a wise pathway to actions." -Jan Newton, UW oceanographer and co-director, Washington Ocean Acidification Center

The report highlighted new research that justifies more concerted efforts to combat ocean acidification, for example:

  • Atmospheric CO2 in the Puget Sound area is increasing faster than along Washington’s coast and faster than the global average. Southern Hood Canal shows the highest surface seawater values of pCO2 in Washington coastal waters.
  • Human-generated atmospheric CO2 is a major source of ocean acidification around Puget Sound and Washington coastal waters.
  • Several local species from pteropods to Dungeness crab are showing sensitivity to ocean acidification, suggesting impacts to the entire marine web including salmon and whales.
  • Impacts may be more severe in nearshore coastal waters than in offshore open ocean waters, because corrosive conditions are closer to the surface in nearshore coastal waters and in Puget Sound.

A number of the strategies and actions to address ocean acidification were updated and clarified from the recommendations five years ago. Those updated actions fall under six overarching categories:

  • Reducing carbon emissions
  • Reducing local land-based contributions to ocean acidification
  • Increasing our ability to adapt to and remediate the impacts of ocean acidification
  • Investing in monitoring and scientific investigations
  • Informing, educating and engaging stakeholders, the public and decision makers
  • Maintaining a sustainable and coordinated focus on ocean acidification.

The Marine Resources Advisory Council is a governor-appointed board responsible for maintaining a sustainable coordinated focus on ocean acidification; advising and working with the Washington Ocean Acidification Center on the effects and sources of ocean acidification; delivering recommendations to the Governor and Legislature on ocean acidification; seeking public and private funding resources to support the Council’s recommendations; and assisting in conducting public education activities regarding ocean acidification. The full report can be found at