Cantwell, Begich Call for National Strategy on Ocean Acidification

Senators, NOAA head visit Seattle laboratory to see high-tech buoys that monitor ocean conditions

SEATTLE –Today, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) called for a national strategy to address ocean acidification and deploy more sensors to monitor the impacts of ocean acidification to the nation’s commercial fishing industry – including thousands of fishing jobs in Washington state -- during a stop at a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) laboratory to see high-tech buoys that detect changes in ocean conditions.

Cantwell and Begich joined NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan today to tour the agency’s Western Regional Center in Seattle to see the high-tech buoys and sensors that NOAA uses to monitor ocean conditions and save jobs in Washington state’s maritime economy. NOAA administers the buoys under the Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS), which Cantwell cosponsored as part of legislation in 2009.

Begich and Cantwell -- both members of the Senate Oceans Subcommittee – announced a legislative effort to make ocean acidification monitoring a national priority. They plan to introduce legislation that would reauthorize the IOOS program and require NOAA to conduct an assessment of what fisheries and fish habitat are most at risk, so officials can deploy ocean acidification sensors where they are needed most. The bill would create the first ever national ocean acidification monitoring plan that targets deployment of monitors to the areas under the greatest economic threat.

“We’re here today because ocean acidification is a jobs issue. If we don’t act, jobs across our country could be impacted,” Cantwell said. “Senator Begich and I are joining efforts to say we need a national strategy on ocean acidification. We need to give researchers the tools they need to help these crab fishermen, fisheries in general, and the shellfish industry to get the most important data so these industries can be protected. Specifically, we are calling for new tools to be developed right here in the lab to be deployed as part of a national network that includes the latest and greatest technology.”

“Alaska’s fishermen know firsthand that we must do everything we can to protect our fish habitats from ocean acidification,” Begich said. “This is a serious issue and this bill would help NOAA plan for the future while providing valuable research to the most at risk fisheries. In my role as Chair of Subcommittee on Oceans I will fight to make sure we continue to look out for our fishermen.”

Ocean acidification is the result of seawater absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide. That changes the ocean’s chemistry, making it more corrosive to the shells of sea creatures such as oysters, mussels and crab. Research has shown a connection between increasing ocean acidity and high mortality rates for young oysters and shellfish, which could pose a threat to Washington state’s $270 million shellfish economy and the jobs it supports.

According to NOAA, Washington fisheries overall support 42,000 jobs and have a $1.7 billion economic impact. Nationally, commercial fishing contributes $70 billion to the U.S. economy and supports 1 million jobs.

But scientists don’t yet know enough about which areas are most at risk due to large gaps in monitoring technology.

The buoys, developed in Seattle, are equipped with sensors that can regularly check surface waters for carbon dioxide concentrations, temperature, salinity and oxygen levels, and transmit that data back to researchers. Researchers also can use “wave gliders” powered by wave motion – like “remote-controlled surfboards” -- that can monitor conditions in different location.

“Our network of buoys and other monitoring devices provide the data local shellfish farmers need to make smart decisions that ultimately affect their bottom line,” Sullivan said. “All told, our network of satellites, buoys, radars, gauges, and other observational tools allow us to keep a pulse on the planet's heartbeat. From the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor, the environmental intelligence NOAA gathers each day provides people with the foresight they need to take action.”

Cantwell, the former chair of the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, has been a leading voice in the Senate about the threat ocean acidification poses to fisheries and coastal economies. Begich, whose state’s red king crab also are at risk from ocean acidification, is the Subcommittee Chairman.

Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish, explained how data collection has helped shellfish hatcheries counteract the effects of ocean acidification.

“We are one of the first industries in the world to be affected by ocean acidification,” Dewey said. “That’s because we’ve been able to collect and see this water chemistry that’s coming into our hatcheries and killing our oyster larvae. We’ve had a wonderful collaboration with folks here at NOAA. With help from Senator Cantwell, we’ve been able to get some very sophisticated monitoring equipment into our hatcheries here in the Pacific Northwest to see the seawater chemistry and understand what it’s doing our oyster larvae, and put treatment systems in the hatcheries and change the seawater chemistry so the oyster larvae will survive.”

Also joining the Senators were Dr. Jan Newton, Executive Director of the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS) and Principal Oceanographer, University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory; and Dr. Christopher Sabine, Director, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Director.

“As a nation, we are making important progress on this and I want to highlight that a critical contributing factor to our success is the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System or IOOS,” Newton said. “Putting an IOOS buoy in the water has been likened by the shellfish growers to ‘putting headlights on a car’.”

In 2010, Cantwell secured funding to acquire and deploy ocean acidification sensors near major shellfish hatcheries in Washington state. Today, these sensors have been integrated into NOAA’s national ocean observing program—the IOOS program. These sensors allow shellfish growers to monitor ocean acidity in real-time and close off their shellfish rearing tanks when ocean acidity is too high. Cantwell also has previously highlighted why additional research is needed to understand ocean acidification’s potential damage to critical salmon food sources – including small crustaceans such as copepods and pteropods.

Cantwell’s bill also would expand the installation of high frequency radar stations, which are part of the IOOS network. On Friday, Cantwell toured the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Port Angeles, where she learned how the Coast Guard uses high-frequency radar to assist in finding missing or distressed boaters in the mid-Atlantic. Washington state has the largest high-frequency radar gap on the West Coast – with nearly 80 percent of the state’s coastline lacking high-frequency radar coverage. High-frequency radar also can be used to map oil spills and to monitor harmful algae blooms and track water quality.