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Why the provincial government is scared of the ocean’s decreasing pH levels

Yesterday, the provincial government partnered with state governments in Washington, Oregon and California to form the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification.

The alliance will be a multi-national effort dedicated to fighting an issue that remains mostly under the radar, but presents some pretty scary possibilities for B.C.’s environment and economy.

A lot of the greenhouse gases piling up in Earth’s atmosphere end up getting absorbed by the ocean. These gasses are causing a fundamental, chemical change in the water as acidity has risen more than 30 per cent.

And scientists say the problem is only going to go worse: by the end of the century that acidity is expected to double again.

As the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel points out, “acidification of coastal waters is an undeniable, pervasive issue whose impacts have only begun to be felt.”

A more acidic ocean, measured by its pH level, will mean “severe environmental, ecological and economic consequences” particularly for the West Coast, where our ocean currents only amplify the problems.

“Ocean acidification endangers not only the biological health of marine organisms but also the numerous economic and societal benefits that stem from the West Coast’s dependence on its coastal waters,” the panel explains

A big scare for many scientists is that a small change in the ocean’s acidity can prevent some ocean dwellers from being able to grow their shells or skeletons, because they dissolve in the low-pH waters.

<who> Photo credit: West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Pane <who>

This is bad news for business like shell fisheries. Deaths at oyster hatcheries are starting to spike, and hatcheries have been seeing huge losses in their stock since as early as 2007.

The panel says that some hatcheries have already moved to higher pH waters outside the pacific, and others that stay are having to make massive investments to combat the problem.

One Canadian company lost $10 million during its scallop harvest in 2014 partly because of ocean acidification.

“As the OA trajectory continues, a range of shellfish industries, including those for oysters, mussels and crabs, will be subject to economically devastating losses.

Microscopic organisms vital to the ocean’s food chain, like algae and zooplankton, are also getting hit hard, as they are unable to properly grow skeletal structures.

Such creatures are an important food source for many West Coast fisheries species, including herring, mackerel and salmon. In some locations, more than 50 per cent of these sea snails are already showing signs of shell dissolution.

More and more CO2 piling up in seawater is also disrupting brain function and sensitive skeleton structure in marine fishes, keeping them from being able to properly navigate, tell predators from prey, find food and find places to live.

Scientists are warning that, without some kind of regional cooperation, these problems will only spiral and get worse.

The Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification, which B.C. joined today, plans to expand awareness, promote more understanding and advance scientific understanding of ocean acidification.

"The Pacific Ocean is crucial to our economy, but more than that, it's a fundamental part of our identity as British Columbians," says Premier Christy Clark. "As a province, we are committed to … mitigating the effects of climate change, and protecting our ocean."

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