Tribes seek to turn the tide on ocean acidity - Salish Current
June 27, 2024
Tribes seek to turn the tide on ocean acidity
Richard Arlin Walker

25% of carbon dioxide emissions dissolve into the ocean, contributing to a pH level of ocean water that is 30% more acidic than at the start of the industrial age, find scientists from NOAA and other agencies. (Graphic courtesy Kevin Saff/NOAA)

June 27, 2024
Tribes seek to turn the tide on ocean acidity
Richard Arlin Walker


This story was originally published on May 22, 2024, in Indian Country Today.

Tribal nations and other partners look for ways to reduce ocean acidity, which has increased 30% in 250 years

It was about 2006 and oyster growers in the Salish Sea were seeing a decline in the abundance and growth of their farmed bivalves. 

A decline in pH levels, tests revealed, had made local seawater corrosive enough to dissolve calcium carbonate in the water that oysters need for shell growth. 

Ocean acidification — the result of carbon dioxide released into the air that settles in the ocean — had reached growers’ shores in the inland coast of Washington state. And if nothing was done to address it, the shellfish growers told then-Gov. Christine Gregoire and their district legislator, they would have to move their operations to more pH-balanced waters in Hawai’i.

The issue didn’t gain traction out of the gate with Washington state lawmakers — who were grappling with crime and mental health issues and teacher pay in their districts — didn’t gain traction, that is, until lawmakers recognized how ocean acidification might affect the state’s economy. 

“Back then, we were barely figuring out what ocean acidification was,” said former state Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), who wrote the state’s first legislation dealing with ocean acidification. 

“All we knew was that a whole bunch of oysters were dying. It wasn’t because it was a big climate issue or a big ocean issue that I was able to get legislation passed. It’s because I walked onto the Senate floor and said, ‘We just lost 300 jobs to the state of Hawai’i because our waters are polluted and we need to figure it out.’ And everyone was like, ‘Holy s***, we’d better do something.’”

Shellfish aquaculture in Washington state contributes $270 million to the annual economy and 2,700 local jobs, according to the Nature Conservancy. The value of state crab landings — nontribal and tribal — during the 2022–23 season was $64.6 million, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. That value, however, grows in terms of jobs and money generated as the crab moves from boat to market. 

But ocean acidification is growing and there’s more at stake than the economy. Marine scientists and environmental advocates say ocean acidification is harming the ecosystem and is threatening traditional foods and treaty rights. Tribal nations that share geography with the Lower 48 and Alaska are employing new tools to track acidification and adapt to changes in waters that have helped sustain them since time immemorial. 

Acidity soaring

Scientists say carbon dioxide produced by the burning of coal, oil and gas has increased the amount of carbon in ocean water, upsetting the ocean’s pH balance. About 25% of carbon dioxide, or CO2, released into the air dissolves into the ocean, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

“When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, the water becomes more acidic and the ocean’s pH drops,” the Smithsonian reports. “Even though the ocean is immense, enough carbon dioxide can have a major impact. … Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed some 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, presently around 22 million tons per day.”

Marine scientists say changing pH levels in ocean water is eroding the materials needed by shelled marine life to grow their shells. This graphic shows the effect of ocean acidification on a pteropod after 45 days. (NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory)

As a result, the ocean is 30% more acidic today than it was at the start of the industrial era 250 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA), the Smithsonian, National Resources Defense Council and others. 

pH is a measurement of how acidic or basic a substance is, on a scale of 0 to 14. Neutral pH is 7.0; anything less than that is considered to be acidic. Human blood has a pH of 7.35; black coffee, between 4 and 5; vinegar and soda, 3; stomach acid and lemon juice, 2; and battery acid, less than 1. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each number represents a tenfold change in acidity. That means water with a pH of 7 is 10 times less basic [more acidic] than water having a pH of 8. 

The average upper-ocean pH is 8.1, according to NOAA. But pH varies by location. The University of Washington reported in 2015 that the pH in seawater at its labs in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in the middle of the Salish Sea was 7.8. In Puget Sound, home of Seattle and Tacoma, seawater pH as low as 7.6 was recorded. Along the ocean coast, pH drops even more when upwelling brings deeper water to the surface — water that is rich in nutrients as well as carbon that long ago settled there.

Those drops in ocean pH are enough to erode the minerals that corals need to grow their skeletons and form the foundation for coral reefs, the research nonprofit Coral Reef Alliance reported. “Research shows that when exposed to high levels of CO2, corals stop being productive and their risk of bleaching increases by up to 50%,” the nonprofit reported. Coral reefs provide habitat for clams, crabs, oysters, sea stars, sea urchins, sponges and many species of fish.

A 2016 NOAA study of Dungeness crabs in Northwest U.S. waters with low pH showed damage to the upper shell of numerous larval crabs, as well as the loss of hair-like sensory structures that crabs use to orient themselves to their surroundings. 

On the Makah Nation island of Tatoosh, in the extreme northwest corner of what is now Washington state, crustaceans have shown signs of weakening during periods of upwelling. 

“The marine life that usually resists intertidal energy on those rocks — the storm surges pounding these rocks — is incredible,” said environmental advocate Micah McCarty, a former Makah Nation chairman. “But after these upwelling occurrences, when the water is more saturated with carbonic acid, we’ve seen patches of gooseneck barnacles, mussels and other different creatures have a harder time holding on.”

In Alaska, researchers have documented extensive shell dissolution in juvenile pteropods — a type of plankton — exposed to corrosive seawater for prolonged periods of time. “Pteropods are at risk to ocean acidification because their thin shells are sensitive to changes in ocean chemistry,” the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network reported. “In more corrosive water, pteropods can have trouble growing their shells because there are fewer carbonate ‘building blocks’ in the seawater. In extreme cases their shells can dissolve.”

Pteropods are a crucial contributor to Arctic food webs, the network reported. “They make up 60% of a pink salmon’s diet in the ocean and they are a favorite food of herring, mackerel, tuna, walleye pollock, squids, large shrimp and whales.”

McCarty said: “Ocean acidification is scary, especially coupled with other dynamics going on — global ocean health, increased water temperatures, hypoxia-related events, harmful algal blooms. The ecosystem is out of balance.”

Tribes getting involved

Gregoire, who served as Washington’s governor from 2005–13, established the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification; members included McCarty, Ranker and other state and tribal legislators, as well as aquaculture representatives, environmental advocates and marine scientists. 

NOAA researchers retrieve a buoy containing ocean acidification measurements off the Olympic coast of northwest Washington state. (NOAA)

The panel developed a 158-page blueprint to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce the amount of land-based nutrients and organic carbon that get into the marine environment, invest in ocean acidification research and monitoring, and inform the public about why it’s important to reduce the amount of carbon they produce and how they can do it. 

Ranker’s legislation established the Washington Ocean Acidification Center at the University of Washington and the state Marine Resources Advisory Council. The center researches and documents the effects of low pH on marine life; the council makes recommendations to the governor and legislature on ocean acidification and seeks public and private funding to support its recommendations.

Tribal nations that share geography with Washington state met in 2016 with state and federal agencies to discuss how best to collaborate on ocean change research, monitoring and response. The result: the 2019 federal designation of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary as an Ocean Acidification Sentinel Site

Sentinel site partners — the Hoh Tribe, Makah Tribe, Quileute Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation and the State of Washington — work together to share data and coordinate a response to changes in pH and oxygen levels on the Olympic Coast (a symposium occurred May 14–16 at the Rainforest Arts Center in Forks). 

Efforts include establishing targets for carbon emission reductions (45% of the state’s emissions come from transportation, 25% from building and construction, and 16% from electricity, according to the sentinel site website); reducing the amount of nutrients in treated wastewater released into the sea; and providing pH forecasts and alerts to shellfish growers so they can plan accordingly. 

Chris Butler-Minor, community engagement specialist with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, said of the sentinel site, “It facilitates collaboration between organizations and puts information in one location so it’s easily disseminated. It creates synergy in information sharing and the exchange of ideas.” 

The Makah Nation will hire an ocean-mapping specialist to collect ocean climate change data, identify information and research needs, and assist the tribe in its work with the West Coast Ocean Alliance, a collaboration of federal, tribal and state ocean policy makers.

The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is home to a rich abundance of marine mammals, seabirds, fish, and thriving invertebrate communities. Marine scientists are documenting the effects of ocean acidification on the species that live here. (Graphic courtesy Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary)

The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research partnership — a collaboration of 16 tribal governments, university researchers and state and federal agencies — has collected ocean acidification samples since 2017 and is studying the mitigating effects of kelp forests on ocean acidification.

Environmental advocate Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community in Akiak, Alaska, told a U.S. House committee in 2020 about the efforts of tribal nations to reduce and mitigate carbon output.

“Tribes offer some of the greatest resources for helping the nation with renewable energy development, particularly wind, solar power, biomass and geothermal power,” he said. “In Alaska, for example, we are installing wind power in very remote communities, such as Tooksok Bay, St. Paul Island, and Kotzebue. Wind power has also been installed on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. 

“Port Graham Village [on the Kenai Peninsula] is assessing construction of a biomass facility using forestry waste. The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation has analyzed the viability of a commercial geothermal power plant. Also, Native Sun Solar, which provides installation, maintenance, and technical support for photovoltaic systems, has installed hundreds of systems on the Navajo and Hopi reservation[s].” 

He added, “To achieve Indian Country’s and Alaska’s renewable energy potential, however, we need investment capital, infrastructure and technical capacity. Any renewable energy program must include opportunities and incentives for tribes. Also, with training, American Indian and Alaska Native youth and adults can be actively engaged in renewable energy jobs, from engineering to manufacturing to installation.”

Despite best efforts, ocean acidification will be with us for a long time, Ranker said. Adaptation is key.

“If we’re going to have productive fisheries, particularly shellfish, we’ve got to adapt,” he said. “The carbon that is reaching the Washington coast right now hit the surface of the ocean 40 years ago. We were driving bigger cars and coal plants were going like crazy in the 1980s. If we stopped every car right now and went to zero carbon output, we’d still have increasingly acidic oceans for the next 10–20 years.”

Butler-Minor added, “We could very well be in a situation where a lot of these species that we rely on — oysters, clams, the pteropods that salmon eat, especially juvenile salmon — all of those could be in position where they’re not able to form shells. The projection [at the current rate of acidification] is the year 2100. It’s not like we’re that far away.”

Calculate your carbon footprint

Many of our daily activities — such as using electricity, driving a car, or disposing of waste — cause CO2 emissions. Together, these emissions make up a household’s carbon footprint.

You can help reduce the amount of carbon that gets released into the atmosphere and ends up in our oceans, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports. 

Here are a few ways to make a difference, courtesy of EPA and other environmental advocacy groups:

  • Reduce, reuse and recycle
  • Buy only what you need
  • Choose local, organic foods that are in season
  • Compost organic waste
  • Turn off unused lights
  • Use a low-flow showerhead
  • Walk or bike short distances instead of driving
  • Carpool or use public transportation
  • When driving, use cruise control; otherwise, go easy on the accelerator and maintain a smooth, even speed
  • Regularly service your car and keep tires properly inflated; doing so will help your vehicle use fuel more efficiently
  • Support clean energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal power
  • Calculate your carbon footprint here.

— By Richard Arlin Walker / Indian Country Today

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