Canaries in Coalmines and Oysters in Estuaries

Overly acidic water is a common problem in southeastern U.S. lakes, and left alone, this can have huge negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems. Essentially, fish and invertebrates don’t particularly enjoy the low pH levels that come with acidic water and can’t survive at a pH below 4. To get around this issue, calcium carbonate is added to water to help maintain a pH that is more preferable to aquatic creatures (usually, around pH 7).

So, what does acidic water in southern ponds have to do with the west coast?  More than you think, but it’s on a much, much larger scale.

It’s called: ocean acidification. Similarly to overly acidic ponds in the southern U.S., when the pH level drops in the marine environment many organisms are negatively impacted. But, in contrast to a lake or pond, there is no quick fix for low pH levels in the ocean. Dumping massive amounts of calcium carbonate in the open ocean isn’t an option (can you imagine how much calcium carbonate that would take?  A lot.).  But, it is an option on a much smaller scale, and something similar is currently used by a hatchery in Oregon.

Through my fellowship, I’ve become familiar with a lot of great work being done in Oregon to try to better understand ocean acidification, and the impacts on the marine environment. And, believe me, it’s a lot — which is awesome because ocean acidification is a big problem. For example, did you know that the west coast ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification (see #12 of this fact sheet)? Or that free swimming sea snails, call Pteropods, have shells that are dissolving in acidic environments (check out this graphic; these strange looking little guys also happen to be salmon food)?  Or that ocean acidification impacts on west coast oyster larvae have been compared to ‘a canary in a coalmine’ (see this TEDx video)? Needless to say, ocean acidification is something that can’t be ignored. Fortunately, Oregon is at the forefront of some really cool research in order to better understand the impacts of ocean acidification, and strategies to combat it. Some current projects include, investigating how sea grass could provide a refuge for shellfish in more acidic conditions, or understanding the impacts of ocean acidification on native oysters, along with exploring how terrestrial factors influence oxygen levels in estuaries.  Plus, an Oregon hatchery is home to a unique partnership between researchers and shellfish growers that arose from a massive oyster die-off a few years ago.

In 2007, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, located on Netarts Bay, had a catastrophic oyster die-off caused by ocean acidification (you can read the backstory here). In order to understand the causes and find solutions, researchers and the shellfish industry teamed up to develop a collaborative partnership that continues today. The hatchery combats acidic water with their own version of an antiacid, called soda ash.  Adding soda ash to hatchery systems helps increase the pH and buffers the water against acidity. This solution works most of the time, except during the annual summer upwelling, in which no amount of buffering can combat the low pH levels associated with this event. For this reason, Whiskey Creek Hatchery continues to work towards better understanding the science and ecological impacts behind ocean acidification.  And, since the 2007 die-off, the hatchery has hosted numerous research efforts to better understand ocean acidification and hypoxia.  In-fact, some of their current projects include: addressing and mitigating early warning signs of ocean acidification on oyster larvae, along with working to improve juvenile oyster survival rates.

Also, on the policy front, there is a lot of great support in Oregon to research, manage and ultimately, better understand this issue. Last summer, Governor Kitzhaber announced that Oregon is teaming up with California to form a panel that focuses on the extent, causes, and effects of ocean acidification along the Pacific coast. Five researchers from Oregon were selected to be on the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel.  The goal of this panel is to bring together experts from across the West Coast to tackle the complex issues of ocean acidification and hypoxia, and hopefully this will lead to some creative research efforts, management or policy options.

Even with all this ongoing work, there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding ocean acidification and hypoxia.  For example, we are only in the early stages of understanding the degree of impact that acidic conditions can have on ecosystems, fisheries, the economy, and even, human health. But, we do know that we are facing a future with lower pH levels and higher CO2 levels that will likely be less than ideal—at least for some species, and in some environments. Although, how this will ripple throughout the ecosystem is difficult to predict, although the more we know, the better off we’ll be.

The Value of Institutional Knowledge

As a West Coast Sea Grant fellow I work on a wide variety of projects for two agencies (DLCD and ODFW) and the Office of Governor Kitzhaber. I’ve had to rely on a number of resources in order to get (and stay) up to speed on the diverse array of state and national ocean policy issues. One of the most valuable resources has been the wealth of institutional knowledge provided by former Sea Grant fellows. Todd Hallenbeck was a Sea Grant fellow from 2011-2013 and was my predecessor. He worked with the Governor’s Office to support the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health (WCGA), particularly in the realm of providing regional data management and decision support tools. Since Todd’s fellowship ended, I was curious about how it prepared him for the work he’s currently doing as a project manager for the WCGA’s West Coast Ocean Data Portal. Todd was awesome enough to answer a few questions and share a little bit about his current work, since the completion of his fellowship.

How did your background tie into the work you did during your fellowship?

Nothing could really prepare me for the wide variety of tasks that I was responsible for during my fellowship. I really had no experience in the policy realm that I found myself in. My background in GIS certainly helped me understand the issues involved with sharing and using data, but that work also exposed me to a whole new world of web GIS. I would say that my desire to see best available information and geospatial data used in the policy context of marine planning helped ground my background in the fellowship work. Both in the Oregon marine planning process as well as the Regional Data sharing work, it was all driven by my firm belief that when you have access the right data and tools, you can make the right decisions that have the most benefit to society.

What was your favorite part of your fellowship?

I really enjoyed working with a wide range of people both in Oregon and across the country. The work exposed me to folks from all over who were working in completely different capacities, from fisherman to data managers to biologists. Yet despite all these seemingly differing perspectives, everyone that I worked with shared that same desire to see the oceans protected and managed sustainably.

Now that your fellowship is done, what is your current position?

I started my own business, Sustainable Ocean Solutions LLC, and am providing project management and data networking consultation to the West Coast Ocean Data Portal Project. It’s a little isolating working from home but I get to maintain contact with a variety of steering committees, working groups, and contractor staff so I never feel like I’m working on this project alone. Also it means I get to live in the San Francisco Bay area, where my family is from.

Since you got an awesome job opportunity in another part of the country—what was your favorite part about living and working in Oregon?

I truly loved living in Portland. It really is a unique city that has so much to offer. The music, the comedy, the food, the biking. I really found a place and a community there that was a big part of why I was so sad to leave. I also found myself out at the coast very often. The rugged and rocky nature of the Oregon coast is unlike anything I had ever seen. I really liked surfing and hiking amongst the coves and headlands. I will miss Oregon and hope to visit it often.

Policy Update from Oregon Sea Grant’s West Coast Fellow

Thus far, it has been a fascinating experience serving as a West Coast Sea Grant fellow for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), the Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD), and the Office of Governor Kitzhaber.

April 2013 was an important milestone for marine policy, with the issuance of the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. This national plan includes overarching, guiding principles for management decisions, with the ultimate goal of sustaining resilient oceans and coasts. In other words, the national plan helps guide decision-makers all over the country, at all levels of government, achieve ocean stewardship for years to come.

Successful ocean stewardship is no small feat. In-fact, it is an extremely complex undertaking involving many different ocean uses, both biological and anthropogenic, coupled with a wide diversity of stakeholders. The ocean is a very busy place. Oregon’s marine waters are used for shipping, fishing, research, along with many other activities, such as planned renewable energy development areas. Biologically, Oregon’s waters contain valuable resources, such as essential habitat, a large diversity of fish species, along with shellfish populations, kelp and eelgrass beds. Furthermore, our coastal ocean contains important shorebird foraging grounds and whale migratory routes.

One way to balance our natural resources with the range of ocean uses is through careful planning. A marine plan helps guide the use of Oregon’s ocean waters, similar to the way city planning guides land use in towns throughout the country. Oregon has been engaged in marine planning for over two decades and recently completed its inaugural marine spatial plan, an amendment to the Territorial Sea Plan, which was specific to marine renewable energy. One key component of a marine plan is spatially explicit data on ocean ecosystems and human uses. Oregon MarineMap was developed to help visualize all the uses and ecological functions that occur in our marine waters.

Many marine issues off Oregon are inter-jurisdictional. That is, they aren’t specific to Oregon, but impact the entire west coast. Some examples of these regional issues are: marine debris, climate change, along with sea level rise and ocean acidification. In 2006, the Governors of Washington, Oregon and California decided to form the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA) to address regional issues that have the capacity to negatively impact ocean health. The WCGA provides a platform for regional collaboration in order to address these issues. Action Coordination Teams were formed to serve as region-wide facilitation and coordination groups on specific ocean issues.

My role is to support the WCGA and associated Action Coordination Teams in order to further regional collaboration and sustainable ocean stewardship. Additionally, I am working to advance marine planning efforts in Oregon. It’s going to be a busy, but very exciting year!