In-Depth: Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to strengthen federal investments in research and monitoring of changing ocean conditions in order to help coastal communities better understand and cope with environmental stressors’ effects on oceans and estuaries:
“Our oceans and estuaries face immediate threats from increasing carbon emissions. As oceans and estuaries absorb carbon dioxide produced by human activity, the waters become more acidic, destabilizing fisheries and threatening the future of coastal communities and ecosystems. The COAST Research Act will help strengthen research to better understand coastal and ocean acidification and give communities the tools they need to adapt and mitigate.”
When she introduced this bill in the 115th Congress, Rep. Bonamici said:
“The health of our oceans reflects the health of our planet. As our oceans, coastal estuaries, and waterways absorb carbon dioxide, they become more acidic and less hospitable for fish, organisms, and wildlife. These changes threaten fisheries, the economic future of coastal communities, and ocean and coastal ecosystems. We must invest in research to better understand ocean and coastal acidification and give affected communities the tools they need to adapt and mitigate the effects.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Don Young (R-AK) notes that ocean acidification is an ongoing threat to his constituents in Alaska:
“Healthy oceans and waterways are essential to maintaining strong coastal communities and providing for a robust marine economy. Ocean acidification is an ongoing threat that must be tackled head-on if we are to ensure a bright economic future for Alaskans whose jobs depend on healthy oceans. Our legislation makes critical investments to assist scientists in their understanding of ocean acidification and equips our coastal communities with the tools necessary to mitigate its devastating effects. I am grateful to Congresswoman Bonamici for her leadership on this issue, and I look forward to working with the rest of the bipartisan Oceans Caucus on other matters affecting our oceans.”
The Ocean Conservancy is one of a number of organizations that support this bill. In a press release, the director of its Ocean Acidification Program, Sarah Cooley, says:
“Americans depend on a healthy ocean. With evidence of changing ocean chemistry, it is critical that we support our best scientists to monitor and research ocean acidification. Millions of jobs and livelihoods, cultures and ways of life, from the Pacific Northwest’s shellfish industry to Florida’s coral reef tourism, depend on this work. Ocean Conservancy is proud to support this legislation, and thanks Reps. Bonamici, Young, Pingree, and Posey for working to secure federal government investments in ocean acidification research for another five years. This forward-thinking COAST Research Act will help communities better prepare for the potential effects from ocean and coastal acidification.”
Margaret Pilaro, Executive Director of the West Coast Shellfish Growers Association, testified on ocean acidification to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Environment Subcommittee. In her testimony, she noted ocean acidification’s adverse effects on shellfish aquaculture:
“Shellfish aquaculture produces nearly $300 million in annual sales and employs thousands of people in mainly rural, economically depressed counties. In 2007, two of the three largest shellfish hatcheries along the West Coast witnessed 70-85 percent mortality of oyster larvae because of acidifying water. Now we realize that the ocean’s ability to store carbon dioxide is impacting the species that live within it and the people who depend on those species. We need the federal government to rise to the challenge of climate change and increase research into ocean health issues that affect our economies.”
In the current Congress, this bill has passed the House Science, Space and Technology Committee by a voice vote with the support of 48 bipartisan cosponsors, including 41 Democrats and seven Republicans. Last Congress, it had 18 bipartisan cosponsors, including 13 Democrats and five Republicans, and didn’t receive a committee vote.
This bill is endorsed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, IOOS Association, Consortium for Ocean Leadership and the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems. It was also crafted with input from the Ocean Conservancy, Restore America’s Estuaries, researchers at Oregon State University, Oregon Coordinating Council on Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia, and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.
Of Note: The Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act (FORAM), passed in 2009, constitutes a federally-funded coordinated response to ocean acidification across federal agencies. Under FORAM, U.S. federal scientific agencies coordinate their efforts to understand, track and address ocean acidification and the federal government funds laboratory studies in this area. The Interagency Working Group on Ocean Acidification, comprised of 14 federal agencies whose work touches ocean acidification issues, was established to meet FORAM’s congressional mandate.
Rep. Bonamici’s office notes that changing ocean chemistry threatens jobs in coastal communities and affects fisheries, shellfish farmers, and seafood and shellfish supplies and prices. According to Rep. Bonamici’s office, “blue economy” jobs that rely on the ocean contribute at least $352 billion to the economy each year; and these jobs are threatened by inadequate management of ocean conditions.
The Ocean Conservancy reports that ocean acidification has already begun affecting shellfish growers and fishery harvests. Paired with other ocean stressors, including ocean heat waves, sea level rise, sea ice loss and reduce ocean oxygen levels, this is putting oceans’ and coastal communities’ futures at risk. The Union of Concerned Scientists observes that the Pacific Northwest’s Dungeness crab population — the highest-revenue fishery in Oregon and Washington — has been reduced by warming waters and ocean acidification; and Northwest fisheries are seeing multimillion-dollar losses due to toxic algal blooms building up in shellfish’s bodies and forcing West Coast fisheries to shut down.
In testimony to the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment on February 27, 2019, Dr. Sarah Cooley, Director of the Ocean Acidification Program at the Ocean Conservancy, noted the magnitude of the threat ocean acidification poses:
“Ocean acidification is an invisible but growing threat to the world’s oceans. Time-series measurements show clearly that the dissolved carbon dioxide concentration of surface ocean water is rising at the same pace as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (Figure 1). When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, carbonic acid is created, which is gradually lowering the pH of seawater and altering other chemical balances important for marine life. We are already seeing the effects of ocean acidification. In the mid-2000s, widespread death of larval shellfish at hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States alerted the aquaculture industry to a major region-wide problem. In partnership with federal and university researchers, the industry identified the problem as ocean acidification caused by fossil fuel emissions dissolved in Pacific Ocean water that upwelled to the surface decades earlier than previously anticipated… Since then, laboratory studies… have shown that ocean acidification has an array of effects on marine species, and the effects are difficult to generalize. Global studies have determined with high confidence that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide causes ocean acidification, and that acidification decreases the calcification rate of many organisms with hard shells and skeletons. Corals grow more slowly under acidification and are less able to recover from breakage or loss from heat-driven bleaching or disease. Many animals that sustain lucrative fisheries, such as oysters and crabs like Dungeness, red King, and Tanner crabs, are more sensitive at earlier life stages, and acidification causes them to grow more slowly and allows fewer to survive to adulthood. Ocean acidification changes the behavior of some fishes and sharks, impairing their ability to find prey or avoid predators. Some models suggest acidification will generally reduce fish biomass and catch. [O]cean acidification can stimulate growth and primary production in seagrasses and some phytoplankton. Although increased plankton growth can provide benefits to marine ecosystems, some fast growing species can out-compete others and cause harmful algal blooms. Emerging evidence suggests that harmful algal blooms could become more frequent or toxic in response to acidification. While it is unclear exactly how ocean acidification’s impacts will propagate through ocean ecosystems and food webs, there is no question that complex interactions will occur among ocean acidification and other stressors… Overall, ocean acidification may disrupt important benefits that ocean systems and resources provide to human communities. Coral reef-associated fisheries and tourism are at risk, as well as coastal communities protected from storm waves by corals. Some studies suggest ocean acidification will alter the market qualities of fishery harvests.”
In her testimony, Dr. Cooley also noted the development of “an active community” dedicated to identifying, testing and sharing opportunities to act on ocean acidification which includes industry (e.g., shellfish hatchery owners), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), university and federal researchers, resource managers and more.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / SolStock)