The Looming Spectre of Ocean Acidification in Atlantic Canada

by Susanna Fuller.

It is Earth Day today – and we often forget that the earth is 70% ocean. Increasingly, what we do on land is impacting our oceans and our fisheries, which remain the most abundant source of wild protein, despite centuries of exploitation. While countries continue to make efforts to better manage human impacts on our oceans, the threats to ocean function continue to mount. One of the more pressing and unpredictable threats, along with being uncontrollable at a local or regional scale, is ocean acidification.

When we talk about the impacts of increased CO2 in our atmosphere, we use language like “warming” or “change”. Neither of which have particularly negative connotations in and of themselves.  Ocean “acidification” on the other hand brings to mind a negative state – the progressive increase in acid levels. Acidification happens because as CO2 increases in the atmosphere, there is more that is taken up or absorbed by the oceans, resulting in a reduction in the pH – or acidity level of the water.

They don’t call it “the blue planet” for nothin’. The oceans cover 70% of our planet and ocean acidification is a huge threat. (Photo: NASA)

What does this mean for the marine environment in Atlantic Canada?

There is a growing body of scientific literature on the impacts of ocean acidification on the marine environment. As the waters acidify, it becomes more and more difficult for animals and plants that contain calcium in their body structures to sequester or absorb that calcium from the water column. This means that lobster, crab, shrimp and molluscs like mussels, clams and oysters will be impacted.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has under taken several studies focused on commercially harvested or farmed animals. To date, there is no focus on management or adaptation to ocean acidification in the Atlantic Canadian fishing industry – which is something that is likely long overdue.

The social and environmental impacts of ocean acidification, via the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

What is being done elsewhere?

Other jurisdictions have begun to realize that they need to face ocean acidification head on, and this usually means directly reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. For some areas, where acidification is already happening, mitigation and adaptation are the primary areas of focus.

Washington State convened a panel in 2012 to bring together the existing science, and provide recommendations going forward to address ocean acidification. Not surprisingly, the number one recommendation was to reduce CO2 emissions. Closer to home, the State of Maine convened a Commission to study the impacts of ocean acidification on species that are harvested or grown on the coast.

Coral reefs will be severely impacted by a change in ocean pH, as corals will struggle to absorb the calcium carbonate needed to build and maintain their stony skeletons. (Photo: USFWS/Jerry Reid)

Areas where coral reefs are a significant part of the marine environment, providing important ecosystem functions as well as home to incredible marine diversity, are particularly concerned about the impacts of ocean acidification, as no reef restoration can be successful if corals simply cannot build their skeletal structure. What might become of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, if pH were to change from the current 8.2 to 7.8?

What are the next steps for Atlantic Canada?

Clearly, we can learn from others – there is no need to reinvent the wheel. However, because political will is important in order to take action on mitigating and adapting to ocean acidification, as well as predicting the impacts on our environment, society and economy it is likely time to bring together experts in Atlantic Canada, including scientists, fishermen, First Nations, and conservation organizations as well as fisheries managers and those working on how we can reduce our CO2 emissions.

Such a convening would raise public awareness and could provide a much needed platform for cooperation in Atlantic Canada to understand and, where possible, prevent the wide scale impacts of ocean acidification in an area that depends on a productive marine environment. We might better understand and be able to protect our deep water corals, shellfish, groundfish and perhaps come together on a region-wide plan for CO2 reduction.

What can we do today, on Earth Day?

Remembering that our earth is 70% ocean is an important step. Despite the winter Atlantic Canada has just come through, where it was hard to believe that “global warming” was anywhere near possible, we need to focus on the increasing unpredictability of our climate.

We all can do our part. The future of our fisheries depends on it. Commitment to reducing our individual carbon footprint is the first step. Hang your clothes out to dry. Walk or bike or take the bus or carpool. Endless websites can help!

Global Day of Action on Climate Change in Copenhagen, during the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference. (Photo: america.gov)

The next is convincing our governments that a collaborative and focused plan to reduce emissions in Atlantic Canada is an imperative. Let’s hope that Atlantic Canadian governments make a strong showing at the Climate Summit of the Americas in July in Ontario.

Countries will convene this fall in Paris in to hammer out what we can only hope will be an ambitious goal to reduce global emissions. While global agreements seem obtuse and far off – ocean acidification will hit us squarely at home.

Susanna Fuller is the Marine Conservation Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. She finds the subject of ocean acidification one of the most difficult and pressing issues facing our oceans today. Particularly because dealing with ocean acidification depends on global agreements to reduce CO2 emissions, upon which it has been so difficult to reach consensus.

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3 thoughts on “The Looming Spectre of Ocean Acidification in Atlantic Canada

  1. All very important, but do remember tht the ocean has not gotten acidic at all. It has gotten slightly less alkaline It will take a great deal more pollutoin than we’ve come up wioth so far to turn the oceans actually “acid” i.e. below pH7 With the exception of places with industiral acid spills and the like of acute acid ification. This doesn’t mean to ignore ocean acidification. it means to slow down on the rhetoric.

    • Here are three citations. There are many many more. You will be very hard pressed in fact to find a pH actually below pH 7*

      * “Predictions of likely decline of surface pH levels to 7.7-7.8 over the next century raise questions about impacts on Calanus population dynamics if these preliminary results are confirmed.” Source:
      National science foundation Project: CH0712: Gulf of Maine Zooplankton and Ocean Acidification Cruise”
      http://www.bco-dmo.org/project/544272

      * “Pre-1800: Mean ocean pH was 8.2
      “Current mean oceanic pH is ~8.08
      “2100 projected pH of ~7.7 if global CO2 emissions not reduced.”
      Source: “Ocean Acidification and Southern New England Acidification Effects on Planktonic Species and Biogeochemistry:”
      Cindy Pilskaln UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and
      Technology”

      * “Predictions of declines of surface pH from present-day levels of 8.1 to 7.8-7.7 over the next century raise questions about impacts on the long-term viability of fisheries.”
      Source: Island Institute “A climate for change”
      http://www.islandinstitute.org/program/marine-programs/climate-change
      * This does not include the mouth of sewer pipes or acid spills other localized chronic acid elevation sites)

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