Ocean Acidification: What You Need to Know

Published October 22, 2014

By Eric Schwaab, Chief Conservation Officer for the National Aquarium

What do lobstermen in Maine, coral reef experts in the western Pacific and oyster growers on the west coast and in the Chesapeake Bay have in common? They are all working to better understand and react to a little known phenomenon called ocean acidification. Most people have heard a lot about ocean warming. Increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is causing water temperatures to rise. We know that ocean warming is affecting our weather, changing the distribution of some fish and stressing aquatic ecosystems across the globe.  

Zebra Shark

Are you a fan of coral reefs? You may want to keep reading.

But ocean warming is not the only (or even the most alarming) trend affecting fish and fishermen. If you like to catch, grow or eat seafood or otherwise depend on healthy ocean ecosystems, you might be interested in acidification. Like warming, ocean acidification results from increased carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. Some of this carbon dioxide, absorbed by ocean waters, leads to chemical processes that increase carbonic acid in said waters, making our oceans slightly more acidic.

Many ocean animals like oysters, crabs, lobsters and corals, take carbon from ocean waters to help build their shells. Some plankton species that provide food at the base of our ocean food chain also compete for carbon. Acidification changes these processes, making it more difficult for many ocean animals to grow.

In 2009, through the Federal Ocean Acidification and Research Act, Congress established a national ocean acidification program. Based primarily on oyster industry concerns, the State of Washington created the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification which produced a comprehensive report, including important recommendations on combating ocean acidification. In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly created a Task Force to look at potential impacts of ocean acidification on state waters; and Maine has a similar effort underway. Both efforts have in common not just scientific inquiry, but a driving motivation to consider potential impacts on commercially and socially important species and ecosystems.  Only last week, the Government Accounting Office issued a report calling for more action at the federal level.  

Here at the National Aquarium, we are heavily involved in this important ocean issue. I have the pleasure of serving as chairman of Maryland’s Task Force to Study the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on State Waters. Look for our report due to the Maryland General Assembly in early 2015. We will also be participating in a panel discussion with other state and federal leaders in November at the 7th National Summit on Coastal and Estuarine Restoration sponsored by Restore America’s Estuaries.  

Check back with us as we move forward on this important ocean issue.  

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