Conservation & Science

New report: We can act locally on ocean acidification

We might not think much about how our air travel affects sea snails, or how our light bulbs link with coral reefs. But on a planet where everything is connected, scientists continue to discover ways in which our carbon dioxide emissions touch life in the ocean.

A baby octopus swims next to a pteropod, right. Shelled zooplankton like pteropods are especially vulnerable to increasing ocean acidity. Photo: Matt Wilson/Jay Clark, NOAA NMFS AFSC.

On April 4, the California Ocean Science Trust released a report on one of the major impacts: ocean acidification. It occurs when the ocean absorbs some of the carbon pollution we’ve pumped into the air, triggering a chemical reaction that lowers the water’s pH.

Acidic seawater makes it tougher for shelled marine animals to survive. The fragile shells  of tiny sea snails called pteropods, for example, are thinning as the pH level drops. The impacts ripple through the marine food web, affecting many of our favorite seafood species. California aquaculturists have reported that baby oysters are dying off at higher rates because their shells aren’t forming properly.

Acidification is happening across the world’s ocean. But the 20-member West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel, which authored the report, found that the North American West Coast is getting hit especially hard, and particularly soon.

That’s because natural circulation patterns in the Pacific Ocean bring deep, carbon-rich waters to our shores, lowering the pH further. A third factor—nutrient-rich waste discharged into waterways from farms, lawns and wastewater treatment systems—amplifies the effect.

Agricultural fields are a source of nutrient runoff, which can make acidification worse along the coast. Photo by Steven K. Webster

The West Coast, in short, is on the front lines of ocean acidification, and the panel warns that the ecological and economic consequences will be severe. But the bad news has a bright side, because it means we can test some solutions at local and regional levels.

By working together, the report states, West Coast resource management agencies and non-governmental organizations can give coastal ecosystems a better shot at weathering the impacts of ocean acidification.

The panel unanimously calls on the governments of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to respond immediately and decisively. Among its findings and recommendations:

  • Support and expand efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, such as California’s AB 32 and Washington’s Climate Action Team.
  • Conserve and restore aquatic vegetation, such as eelgrass and kelp beds, that removes carbon dioxide from seawater.
  • Reduce land-based pollution that can make acidification worse in certain areas.
  • Support science-based monitoring and management of coastal ecosystems.


The report “scales a challenging, global problem down to a local and regional level,” said Deborah Halberstadt, executive director of the California Ocean Protection Council, “providing a roadmap to guide measurable and meaningful progress.”

A ring-billed gull perches in Elkhorn Slough. Sea grasses in estuaries absorb CO2, reducing the rate of acidification.

If we act now to protect and restore our coastal ecosystems, we can help them cope with, and adapt to, the acidification already occurring. And that’s good for fisheries, coastal economies and our own well-being.

“Together, the West Coast states have led the way in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to slow the pace of climate change,” said Aimee David, ocean policy director for Monterey Bay Aquarium. “This report highlights our opportunity to lead on ocean acidification, too. Cutting emissions is critical. But the science also underscores the need for regional action, such as restoring coastal habitats.”

Acidification is a profound threat to ocean health—but it’s not too late. Through collaborative, science-based solutions, we can support the ocean’s resilience to the changes already in motion, creating a better future for wildlife and people.

Learn more about Conservation & Science at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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