Expert Report Can Guide Northeast in Fighting Climate Change Impact on Oceans

How do New England clam chowder, Cape Cod oyster stew and steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs relate to December's Paris Climate Agreement?

If you followed the Paris talks, or COP21, you know that representatives from more than 185 nations finalized an international climate change agreement to combat rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. While the group dedicated significant attention to the atmospheric effects of rising CO2 and its effect on climate, it stopped short of tackling a second enormous impact, which is the absorption of carbon dioxide by the world's oceans, or ocean acidification. Fossil fuel pollution is a threat to ocean ecosystems, and communities that rely on fishing and shellfish farming for their economy, their cultural heritage, and food on the table.

That's why I'm so encouraged by this report from The Prospect Hill Foundation that highlights one ocean acidification hotspot in the U.S.--the coastal waters and estuaries of southern New England. The report compiles presentations from the symposium "Latitude 41 Under Siege," which brought together environmental leaders, scientists, state and federal officials, funders, and citizen group leaders and summarized their thoughts about the challenges the region faces from the twin impacts of ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide, and a local source of acidification, nutrient pollution. The report also offers concrete changes the region can make to build more resilient bays, estuaries and ocean waters in the face of this one-two punch.

An earlier NRDC study on ocean acidification hotspots in the United States notes that parts of southern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are vulnerable to economic impacts from shellfish losses due to ocean acidification.

The main way the United States can reduce ocean acidification is by reducing our individual carbon emissions and using political tools like the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan. But in some areas in Southern New England and New York--such as Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, and Cape Cod, there also is a way to tackle local sources of acidification. In this region, nutrient pollution -- mostly in the form of nitrogen -- exacerbates ocean acidification's effects. Nutrient pollution comes from farm field and lawn runoff, sewage discharge, stormwater runoff and septic system failures, leading to prolific algae growth. When excess algae die and sink into deeper waters, decay by bacteria causes increased acidity and oxygen-deficient water conditions, called hypoxia. Both factors can harm young shellfish and finfish. Limiting nitrogen pollution is a tangible step on a local scale that New Englanders can take right now to provide relief for our local shellfisheries and bolster this valuable coastal economy to withstand the coming changes in a high CO2 world.

The Latitude 41 report cites three things New England communities can do to protect and restore New England's coastal resources in the face of these challenges:

  1. Expand scientific research and use the data to call for concrete action. Increasing research and data collection on nutrient pollution would help support management decisions and help get the message out to policy-makers and the public about key marine threats and solutions.
  1. Leverage laws and policies to address nutrient pollution and ocean acidification. The Clean Water Act offers an avenue for using local and regional water quality planning to address nutrient pollution from septic systems and cesspools, sewage treatment plants, and runoff. Through the Act, communities can develop nutrient criteria, identify thresholds, and fully implement provisions of the Act and other policies to promote wetland restoration and help address nutrient pollution.
  1. Enhancing engagement by policy-makers, elected officials and the public. Ideas for this engagement include a regional four-state summit on nitrogen pollution and ocean acidification, building stronger ties between Members of Congress from the Southern New England and Mid-Atlantic region, and helping unite the region's elected officials.

Specific actions include:

  1. Diversifying shellfish species portfolios harvested in an area to move away from single-species harvests, and the devastating impacts on communities if their primary species is harmed, diminished or destroyed;
  2. Shellfish aquaculture strategies to adapt and mitigate ocean acidification effects on bivalve seed production;
  3. Adequately funding wastewater treatment where needed;
  4. Stronger regulations, including effective stormwater and wastewater permits, to address multiple sources of pollution; and,
  5. Low cost financing, grants, and technical assistance for cities and municipalities to tackle stormwater runoff.

Efforts like these can help our shellfisheries and fisheries, recreation and tourism industries, wildlife and ocean ecosystems adapt to, and ultimately survive, the impacts of rising carbon dioxide pollution.

About the Authors

Lisa Suatoni

Senior Scientist, Oceans program

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