Pulitzer Center Update

Ocean Acidification: Just One of the Challenges Facing Marine Ecosystems

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Ed Jones, manager at the Taylor Shellfish Hatchery in Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay, pries open an oyster. Ocean acidification is believed to have killed billions of oysters in the Pacific Northwest waters since 2005. Image by Steve Ringman. Hawaii, 2013.

Ocean acidification and its economic, cultural and political implications are one of the biggest environmental challenges man will face in the coming years. As Reid Wilson reported for The Washington Post on July 31, 2014, this rapid change in sea chemistry is frightening even scientists.

Today, as much as one third of the water on the West Coast is acidic enough to be “corrosive,” Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and the University of Washington, told The Washington Post. According to estimates, “by 2050, 50 to 70 percent of the water will be corrosive.”

As the environmental consequences become more apparent, so do the political repercussions—as in the state of Washington where, according to a front-page story on August 4, 2014, in the New York Times, Gov. Jay Inslee is citing threats to the state's oyster industry in a push to elect legislators who will support aggressive legislation to curb the rate of climate change.

Rapidly changing ocean pH and its impact on marine ecosystems—including the oysters of Puget Sound—is the focus of Pulitzer Center grantees Craig Welch and Steve Ringman’s multimedia reporting project for The Seattle Times. Welch and Ringman traveled around the world to see first-hand the effects that rising CO2 levels will have on ocean life, but what they found surprised them: Acidification rates expected to occur later this century are already being surpassed.

In order to make more accurate predictions and develop problem-solving techniques to protect both the ocean and the industries that depend on it, scientists are observing the behavior of organisms under these increasingly acidic conditions. Optimists in the field believe that evolution and rapid adaptation to these harsher environments will save the day; others aren’t convinced. “Concerns about extinctions are very real and very valid,” Gretchen Hoffman, marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara told Welch and Ringman. “Biology can bend, but eventually it will break.”

The indirect effects of our industrial world are not the only factors playing a major role in the deterioration of crucial marine ecosystems. Non-sustainable industrial fishing practices are having a devastating effect on the diversity and health of these underwater environments.

Once known as “the World’s Aquarium,” the Sea of Cortez, now serves as a cautionary tale for the destructive power of the seafood industry. With a grant from the Pulitzer Center, science writer Erik Vance and photojournalist Dominic Bracco II traveled to Mexico to report on the story as it grew to become a global trend. As Vance reports, the sea is “being emptied of life,” and “85 percent of its species either are being fished at their maximum or are over-exploited.” The waste is astronomical: For every pound of shrimp a major shrimping boat catches, they catch—and kill—four pounds of throwaway fish.

But it’s not just the fishing industry facing this crisis, it’s also the local fishermen and their communities that depend on these waters. Vance and Bracco interviewed members of these groups, including people from the indigenous Seri population. They saw “large industrial trawlers as interlopers that come in, take what they can, and leave devastation in their wake.”

The Seri land is under legal protection as is the water bordering it, and the relatively greater health of the fish and ecosystem shows the improvement possible with fewer fishermen.

In Cabo Pulmo, the southern tip of Baja, Mexico, a more extensive experiment in ocean preservation is taking place: In 1995, along with the help of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, a tiny fishing pueblo restricted fishing in their own waters, creating an underwater preserve and designating tourism as their major source of income.

This risky endeavor proved fruitful. The town saw improvements far beyond expectations, with “a viable coral reef that could host complex ecosystems and attract bigger fish, as well as divers and snorkelers.” By 2009, biomass in Cabo Pulmo had increased 460 percent.

The future of our oceans will depend on scientists, industrial fishermen, and local involvement. There are many frightening statistics and stories of devastated ecosystems and disappearing species, yet success stories like Cabo Pulmo suggest that steps taken today can lead to tangible improvements tomorrow.