Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sea Sick: Press Democrat Editorial

Here's a timely editorial from our local newspaper, The Press Democrat. Remember, this Saturday is Coastal Cleanup Day!

Photo credit: Scripps Institute of Oceanography. University of California scientist Matt Durham, front, pulls in a large patch of sea garbage with the help of Miriam Goldstein during an August research trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Sea Sick:
Rising Acid Levels, Floating Trash Are Signs of Ocean Peril

Published: Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.

It isn’t obvious from the beaches on the scenic Sonoma Coast, but the health of the world’s oceans is tenuous. From declining fish stocks to rising levels of acid to a swirling vortex of discarded plastic in the northern Pacific, there are signs that the world’s oceans could present the next environmental crisis.

A new emphasis on protecting streams offers hope for restoring fisheries, as do plans to remove dams on the Klamath River and elsewhere that have kept salmon from reaching their historic spawning grounds.

This summer, California created 22 marine protection zones along the coast from San Francisco Bay to Mendocino County, which should help restore stocks of rock fish and abalone, offering more hope to the state’s beleaguered fishing industry. Similar ocean sanctuaries already were established between Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay, and more are likely along California’s 1,100 miles of coastline.

Meanwhile, scientists at UC’s Bodega Bay Marine Lab are focused on the threat to marine life from the changing chemistry of ocean water.

Researchers say rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air — a result of global climate change — are being replicated in the ocean. That, in turn, results in higher levels of acid in ocean water.

Scientists have found evidence that mollusk shells are dissolving and mussel beds are disappearing. Their current study is focused on oysters, but they’re also concerned about long-term consequences for abalone, urchins, clams and other shellfish.

The threat is economic as well as environmental: California’s shellfish industry recorded more than $16 million in sales last year.

“Very little is known about how ocean acidification is unfolding, other than it is,” Susan Williams, the director of the Bodega Bay Marine Lab, told Staff Writer Bob Norberg. “We are already seeing dramatic effects.”

Another dramatic effect of human activity is the huge field of discarded plastic trapped in a gyre of ocean currents between Hawaii and Japan. Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, by some estimates it covers an expanse of ocean the size of Texas and includes as much as 100 tons of plastic, most of it discarded on land.

UC San Diego researchers recently visited the zone and found some large pieces, including stuffed toys, buckets and bottles. But the small pieces, many smaller than a thumb nail, concern them most because they’re easily swallowed by seabirds and marine mammals. Japanese scientists recently reported that the plastics break down faster in the ocean water, releasing contaminants that may add to the threat to marine life. Scientists fear there may be another patch of plastic waste in the south Pacific.

It may be impossible to clean up the plastic that’s already there, but it’s one more good reason to think twice about how you dispose of trash.

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