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The Acidification of our Oceans

14 November 2016

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the ocean absorbs about a quarter of the CO2 released into the atmosphere each year. Initially, this was viewed as a positive outcome, as it was removing some of the greenhouse gases that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

However, scientists now realize that when large amounts of CO2 are absorbed by the ocean, it chemically alters the structure of the seawater. It reduces the pH carbonate ion concentration, and saturation states of calcium carbonate minerals. This is important because these minerals compose the structure for the shells of many crustaceans and skeletons of other marine organisms.

The process of the ocean absorbing this excess CO2 is called ocean acidification (OA) and is causing the ocean to become undersaturated with these essential minerals.

NOAA marks the Industrial Revolution as the point when humans started releasing significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Since that time, the pH of the ocean has decreased .1 pH unit. While this may sound insubstantial, it actually equates to about a 30% increase in acidity.

As President Barack Obama described it at the Our Ocean Conference in September of 2016, “The ocean acts like a sponge, absorbing most of the extra heat caused by our greenhouse gases. And it's been growing warmer and more acidic for decades now. In other words, the very chemistry of our oceans is changing, which is risking marine life and rippling all the way up the food chain.”

This issue didn’t really break into the political sphere until around 2006. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 (MSRA), primarily designed to protect crashing fish stocks, also ended up with an amendment to monitor the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs.

These provisions were authored by former Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and the bill was signed into law in early 2007. The MSRA also commissioned the National Resource Council to conduct a study on the effects of acidification of our oceans.

While the study was ongoing, former Representative Thomas Allen (D-ME), introduced a bill called the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act (FOARAM). The bill was bipartisan, co-sponsored by Former Representative Vernon Ehlers  (R-MI) which prompted former Representative and current Governor of Washington Jay Inslee to remark:  

“Mr. Speaker, ocean acidification is both the most disturbing and potentially the most unifying issue involving carbon dioxide and climate change. It is the most disturbing because nothing that I have heard in the last couple of years about this phenomenon disproves the point of that old saying from the 1960s that was in an old commercial ‘It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature’...But here is why it's unifying: It's unifying because while we have had some debates about the climatic effects about global warming and CO2, there is no debate about ocean acidification. We could spent the next century arguing about the precise climatic effects of CO2, but there is no debate that we are making the oceans unfit for life that God himself or herself designed on the planet Earth. And that is what we are doing. And I am hopeful that that can be a unifying idea in this Congress so that we can start to develop a clean energy future for the country and the world that can preserve the oceans for living species that we depend on as well as the rest of the world.So it is disturbing now.”  

Senator Lautenberg introduced companion legislation in 2007. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House but died in the Senate.

FOARAM was then reintroduced and passed in the next legislative session in 2009, this time sponsored by Representative Brian Baird (D-WA), with companion legislation still sponsored by Senator Lautenberg. It ultimately was passed as part of the a larger bill, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. The bill passed the in the Senate with a vote of 77-20 and in the House 285- 140. Opponents of the bill, such as Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)  largely cite costs and the ethicacy of bundling so many things into one large law. “Supporters of this 1,200-page massive omnibus package will tell you that most of the bills it is comprised of are largely noncontroversial. In some cases they are correct, but in many cases they are not.”

The reintroduction of FOARAM was partly spurred by a study funded by NOAA and NASA that, “showed the scope of the problem facing North America's West Coast is (was) far greater than scientists ever imagined. Alarmingly high levels of acidified water have been found within 20 miles of the shore, which could spell disaster for ecosystems from Mexico to Canada, and everywhere in between.”

The bill called for the creation of an interagency plan to “monitor and conduct research on the processes and consequences of ocean acidification on marine organisms and ecosystems”. It also established an OA research program under the umbrella of NOAA. The bill gave a deadline of two years for the “development of adaptation and mitigation strategies to conserve marine organisms and marine ecosystems.”

While FOARAM provided an infrastructure to learn about, monitor, and develop strategies for the effects of OA, it did not really have any legislative teeth to actually combat the effects of the rising amount of CO2 in our oceans. Some officials tried to use pre-existing legislation, mainly the Clean Water Act of 1972,  to help mitigate the rising pH levels. In a letter  to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010, three Representatives (Jay Inslee, Lois Capps, and Sam Farr) note how Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act, “requires that states identify impaired waters and develop approaches to limiting the pollution causing the water quality problem.”

In 2015, another bipartisan bill was introduced by Representatives Sam Farr  (D-CA), Don Young  (R-AK) and Lois Capps  (D-CA) called the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring (FOARAM) Act of 2015. This bill is an extension, expansion, and reauthorization of the FOARAM Act of 2009.

Representative Don Young said, “The FOARAM Act has provided crucial funding for NOAA's ocean acidification research efforts, including those housed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This research has increased our understanding of where changes are occurring, how they vary by region and the ways they impact marine life, particularly shellfish. Alaska's shellfish industry has significantly benefited from this important NOAA research, which has allowed the industry to mitigate and adapt to our changing oceans." The bill is currently still in committee.

The issue of OA seems to fall less along party lines and more along geographic ones.

In coastal states, both West, East and even the Great Lakes, the effects of the rising pH levels are prominent in the way their marine ecosystems and marine industry has been impacted. States in these regions with large marine based industry, such as aquaculture, are the most vocal about getting legislation passed.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has introduced the Conserving Our Reefs and Livelihoods Act of 2016, to try and mitigate the effects of OA on the dissolution of coral reefs and ecosystems. Representative Vern Buchanan (R-FL) has also introduced legislation, the Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act, to amend and strengthen FOARAM.

In 2014 Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), along with Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) introduced the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act. The bill would allow federal funding to be used to incentivise states to manage and research the effects of OA. It died in Congress and was reintroduced in 2015. It is currently still in committee.

On a more local level, many coastal states have enacted legislation to study and combat OA. Former Washington Governor Chris Gregoire created a blue ribbon panel to study the effects of OA on Washington’s shellfish industry.

Maine, Maryland and Massachusetts state legislatures have also commissioned panels and task forces in order to study, monitor, and plan for OA. California, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island have either recently passed or are in the process of reviewing legislation on OA and its effects it could have on blue jobs and marine industries.

The issue of ocean acidification is slowly coming to prominence in the United States. Largely due to the strong array of scientific data backing up the claims of the changing chemistry of the seas, the issue is largely a bipartisan one.

The amount of science and data we have on the issue was made possible by bills such as the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2009 and its pending reauthorization. It is one of the few consequences of our CO2 footprint and climate change that is not drawn around party lines. Legislators and lawmakers in coastal areas are already seeing the negative impacts of this phenomenon and are unable to ignore it, whether they represent a red state or blue.

Sam Evans  is currently a research associate with Vote Smart in the Profiles sub-department. For more information contact us by email at or  calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.

Related tags: 2016, blog, ocean-acidification

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