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East Coast Governors Join to Protect Our Oceans

Jul 16, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, OCEANA Board Member Sam Waterston spoke at the Mid-Atlantic Governors Ocean Summit to address one of the lesser-known and most insidious dangers facing the oceans now -- the acidification of the water from its absorption of ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Fortunately, that day, the governors of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia agreed to form a council dedicated to the protection of precious, yet dwindling, ocean resources -- looming crises that have been overlooked for way too long. Our oceans play a critical role in regulating our climate; they provide jobs for hundreds of millions of people and feed billions.

At some point in the not too distant future, the oceans will simply have absorbed all the carbon dioxide that they can tolerate without having a devastating impact on the marine life that is so magnificent and on which so many of us depend.

Waterston effectively described the nature of this daunting problem and made a powerful case about what must be done to address this impending calamity. Below are key excerpts from Waterston's persuasive presentation.

The oceans for the last 250 years have been a great sink, absorbing much of the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, moderating and masking its global impact, until now. While the oceans have been providing us a great service, and even been part of the solution to the climate change problem, that important service is making them sick.

About 30 percent of the carbon dioxide humans release into the air is absorbed by the seas. There it combines with seawater to create an acid, carbonic acid, changing the acidity of that vast solution. A consequence is a reduction in the amount of available carbonate. And that is serious mischief for all the kinds of sea life that need carbonate to make the structures which support them, beginning with corals, and pteropods, and continuing on through shellfish, clams, oysters, lobsters, mussels, and so on.

A chain reaction begins. Humans aren't the only creatures that love to eat shellfish, or that in some instances depend for life upon it. Even those creatures whose own structural parts might better survive a decrease in available calcium in sea water, depend to one degree or another on critters with higher sensitivity. Whales and salmon need pteropods for dinner. Fish need corals for habitat. As with any unwanted chain reaction, the thing to avoid reaching is critical mass, where the problem outruns any effort to control it. This particular chain reaction isn't getting the right kind of attention.

Science, in a situation with so many variables, has a hard time with certainty, and, politically, certainty is sometimes a prerequisite to concerted action. Scientists will disagree about the finer points: whether pteropods are extinguished at one pH or another, whether we have 20 years or 50 to resolve this or that part of the problem, and so on. While these uncertainties may be politically telling, they're more emotional than logical or scientific. It's a matter of academic interest only, and anyway unknowable, in which decade or century the last great extinction began 65 million years ago.

The answer has no practical importance. What matters is that the great extinction itself happened. Respected paleontologists already say that the period we are now living in will be looked back upon as one of those great extinctions, along with the end of the dinosaurs. Eighty percent of all life on earth is in the sea. If a great extinction occurs there now, it will unquestionably have been man-made. We will bear the loss, and carry the responsibility for, what we don't rescue of that life.

OCEANA is the world's largest international organization dedicated to ocean conservation.