My turn: Gulf Coast catastrophe a wake-up call for Congress

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010

The ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico starkly highlights the dangers of offshore drilling to fishermen, coastal communities and our economy. Promises that offshore drilling is safe for even our most sensitive coastal waters are forever broken. The river of oil flowing unabated from the Deepwater Horizon is indeed a "crude" wakeup call that drill, baby, drill is not a robust energy policy.

Startling images and compelling stories of the encroaching black wave have gripped the nation. That terror is all too familiar to fishermen in Alaska who lived through the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill. The cost and risks associated with our fossil fuel consumption are tremendous and can never be wholly eliminated.

This inevitable risk of spills and repeated tales of botched oil spill clean ups, even in warm, ice-free waters, should be a call to action to permanently protect important marine waters like America's wild fisheries stronghold in Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea, recently removed from the offshore leasing program.

However, the tragic oil spill may have masked the actual gorilla in the room when it comes to our nation's dependence on oil. The silent threat of ocean acidification has the potential to cause long-term, catastrophic impacts far beyond even the damage of a massive spill. The only safe way forward is to reduce carbon emissions by moving away from fossil fuels.

Millions of tons of carbon dioxide spewed into the air every day from smokestacks and tailpipes are absorbed by the oceans. This is causing marine waters to become more acidic. Effects that scientists predicted decades in the future are being observed today. Off the coasts of Washington and Oregon oyster reproduction has largely failed four years in a row. Oyster hatcheries are having trouble raising young oysters, and the culprit is the rising acidity of seawater. Not only are shellfish at risk, changing the chemistry of seawater may fundamentally alter the food web. Harm to one species will have a domino effect on others.

A 2010 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "unless anthropogenic CO2 emissions are substantially curbed, or atmospheric CO2 is controlled by some other means, the average pH of the ocean will continue to fall [creating] a risk of ecosystem changes that threaten coral reefs, fisheries, protected species, and other natural resources of value to society."

Congress and the Obama administration are already taking positive steps to respond to the devastating Gulf of Mexico spill. But we need to demand that our decision makers treat the root cause of oil contamination in all its forms. Legislation that reduces carbon emissions will have the added benefit of stimulating innovations that transition us away from fossil fuel dependence and toward a clean energy economy. Healthy communities and economies need an energy future fueled by renewable resources like wind, solar, geothermal and wave energy. We need to move away from offshore drilling and protect our oceans before they become too fouled and too acidic to support marine life as we know it. The images playing out from the Deepwater Horizon disaster should be a stark reminder of the urgency for change. A failure to act increases the likelihood of another major spill, but also jeopardizes the very foundation of ocean life, communities, jobs and opportunities that our children should inherit.

• Alan Parks lives in Homer. He has been commercial fishing in Alaska since 1975 and works for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. He is currently doing outreach and education on ocean acidification climate change and energy policies. Pete Knutson has been a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific for 38 years. Knutson owns a family fishing business supplying Seattle area farmers markets and co-ops. He holds a PhD in marine anthropology from the University of Washington, and is an anthropology teacher at Seattle Central Community College.

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