Ocean acidification: ‘We’re down but not out’

Published on
January 31, 2011

Marine experts issued a rallying call on the first day of the SeaWeb’s International Seafood Summit 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, urging the global seafood industry and all other ocean stakeholders to avoid a defeatist attitude with ocean acidification and to instead pile pressure on scientists to provide solid data and advice on the potentially catastrophic problem, which could then be used to create concrete solutions.

Ocean acidification occurs when CO2 reacts with seawater to produce an acid; the faster the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, the faster the acidification of the ocean.

Recent studies suggest the current uptake of CO2 by the surface waters of the ocean, and the resulting rate of ocean acidification, is about 100 times quicker than at the end of the last glacial 20,000 years ago, which was the last significant rise of CO2.

These studies found carbonate levels could drop to levels that will eventually dissolve calcium carbonate structures like shells and skeletons. And, according to predictions, if the levels of atmospheric and oceanic CO2 continue to rise at current levels the entire Arctic Ocean, for example, will be in a state that can dissolve such structures by the end of this century, changing the food chain forever.

However, a panel of marine and seafood industry experts told delegates at the Seafood Summit that the biggest mistake would be for individuals and industry to bury their heads in the sand and do nothing.

“There are things that can be done about it that don’t involve breaking the economy,” said Brad Warren, fisheries advisor and director of Productive Oceans Partnership for the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.

“There are companies that have taken this on seriously, have made money by doing it and have proven profits can go up by reducing carbon emissions,” he continued. “[U.S. chemicals company] DuPont is a good example: its emissions are down 72 percent since 1990, production is up 40 percent and the bottom line has grown by USD 3 billion (EUR 2.2 billion). It did this only partly by reducing energy consumption, but a lot was achieved through increasing production efficiency. Seafood companies Findus and Trident are other examples.

“The tendency is to view this as an apocalypse, but if we stop there we haven’t done our job at all,” said Warren. “It’d be a remarkable thing for this civilization to say we’re not up to the challenge, that we made this mess but we can’t clean it up. Do we really want to say that and is that who we really want to be?”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Dr. Richard Feely said the industry urgently needs to work closely together with scientific experts to discover the “tipping points” of marine species, which is the stage at which those organisms can no longer live in those environments, and to devise strategies that will limit the impacts of ocean acidification.

“That will take this [seafood] community here to put pressure on the scientific community to do that,” said Feely. “We need them to tell us how serious the problem is: what’s the tipping point for corals, what’s the tipping point for oysters. That’s where we are now and that’s why we need the scientists.”
Warren pointed out the impacts of ocean acidification are beginning to be found in seafood production and that the problem will inevitably intensify.

“Science tells us there’s an inevitable train of trouble coming our way, some of it we really cannot avoid. Therefore, we’ve got to deal with what we can avoid. A much larger train wreck is avoidable,” he said.

Henry Demone, president and CEO of Canadian seafood supplier High Liner Foods, said he sees ocean acidification and the threat it poses to marine habitats as a very serious problem, and that the long-term implications should scare everyone.

“It gets back to the whole consumer issue of changing our lifestyles — all those things that people talk about doing but rarely do,” said Demone. “People are working on it, such as Taylor Shellfish Farms and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. But carbon emissions are a huge problem to solve because you have to do it one consumer at a time.”

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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