Who in the United States will be Most Harmed by Ocean Acidification?

In 2007, when Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Oregon experienced extreme die-offs of baby oysters, the company became the first known economic victim of ocean acidification in the United States.

While the development of 'early warning' systems for corrosive waters in the Pacific Northwest has helped turn that oyster industry around, ocean acidification continues to worsen as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rise.

The Pacific Northwest shellfish aquaculture industry was the first casualty of ocean acidification in the U.S. Who will be next?

A new research study I co-authored with scientists at UC Davis, Ocean Conservancy, Duke University, and several other institutions, tries to answer this question. We found that coastal communities in 15 states are at high risk from changing ocean chemistry. Everywhere from Maine to Louisiana to Long Island Sound, we found local factors that increase vulnerability to economic and community losses.

While reducing global carbon emissions is the ultimate solution to curbing ocean acidification, some good news for those who live in one of these hotspots, or for anyone concerned about our country's coastal communities, is that there is much we can do to help communities prepare for ocean acidification's effects.

Our study, the first nationwide vulnerability assessment for ocean acidification, was published last Monday, February 23rd, in the journal Nature Climate Change. We integrated physical, economic, and social data to assess coastal regions' overall vulnerability, tracking numerous risk factors. Our maps illustrate that while ocean acidification's effects have a global reach, local factors can strongly influence how many regions of our coast are at risk in the coming decades.

The oyster industries of the Pacific Northwest have already lost over $110 million dollars due to acidification. On the Oregon and Washington coasts and estuaries, a potent combination of risk factors converge, including cold waters, upwelling currents that brings corrosive waters closer to the surface, corrosive rivers, and nutrient pollution from land runoff.

Some other "hotspots" we found included:

New England: The productive ports of Downeast Maine and southern Massachusetts where poorly buffered rivers run into the cold New England waters which are especially enriched in 'acidifying' carbon dioxide.

Mid-Atlantic hot zones: East Coast estuaries like Narragansett Bay, Chesapeake Bay and the Long Island Sound where an abundance of nitrogen pollution exacerbates ocean acidification in shellfish-rich areas.

Gulf of Mexico hot zones: Terrebonne and Plaquemines Parishes of Louisiana - and other communities in the Gulf of Mexico - where the shelled mollusk industry is limited to oysters, giving this region fewer options for alternative, potentially more resilient, mollusk fisheries, in the short term.

Each hot spot has a unique profile that points to different suites of potential actions. Such actions could include reduction of local pollutants, diversification of fishing fleets, expanding aquaculture investments in areas at less risk from acidifying waters, and possibly even the cultivation of acidification-resistant strains of oysters.

The example of the Pacific Northwest is hopeful, and we should immediately build on that success. State lawmakers should establish expert panels to identify priority research and action plans tailored to each region, perhaps following the example of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia panel (http://westcoastoah.org).

At a national level, Congress passed the Federal Ocean Acidification and Research Monitoring Act (FOARAM) in 2009. One result was the commencement of a monitoring network for ocean acidification, from which Pacific Northwest shellfish industries have benefited. But without adequate funding, that network has stalled. Increased funding for targeted research and monitoring programs would help protect fisheries.

We need an integrated effort, localized to help communities at risk.

Click here to read the full report: http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2508.html.

To explore if (and how) your region is vulnerable to ocean acidification tour NRDC's interactive map at http://www.nrdc.org/oceans/hotspots.asp.

More information, including state-specific fact sheets, can be found here: http://www.nrdc.org/oceans/acidification/state-vulnerability.asp.

This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.

About the Authors

Lisa Suatoni

Senior Scientist, Oceans program

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