Honoring whales through responsible action

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2010

As I'm out on the water sharing the magic of our whales with our many visitors, I am regularly reminded of how productive and clean our waters are.

This, of course, is in stark contrast with the images of the Gulf of Mexico's ecological disaster. Instead of cleaning oiled pelicans or picking up tar balls, we get to marvel at the majestic splendor of breeching humpbacks. We are indeed blessed. While it is easy to rest in the role of sharing this blessing with our visitors from afar, I got a reminder the other day that with the privilege of living among whales comes a responsibility to give back.

This reminder also came from a whale. As we drifted among the whales in North Pass, keeping our required distance, a whale surprised us by coming right under the bow. He then circled around and came back again, touching us ever so slightly with his pectoral fin. I called it a 'love touch.' Once back inside the cabin, a young girl from Michigan asked. "Why did the whale do that? Was he trying to tell us something?" I responded casually to this teaching moment, "to take care of our oceans."

Later in the week as I was reading some of the material in my inbox regarding ocean acidification, I reflected back on this whale-watching moment. I realized that perhaps this whale was extending a teaching moment, but not just for the inquisitive child. Yes, we are blessed with clean waters relative to the Gulf of Mexico but our oceans are under siege as well, only it is far less visible. Our oceans are currently being subjected to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is the other carbon problem caused by our growing emissions of carbon dioxide sine the industrial revolution.

The science is pretty basic: Some of that carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, where it dissolves to form carbonic acid. The ocean today absorbs nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide we produce.

However, the ocean has absorbed so much carbon dioxide that overall acidity levels are rising, and at a much faster rate than previously recorded pre-industrial age. More acidic water makes it harder for some creatures like oysters, crabs and mussels to form shells, which are made largely from the calcium carbonate.

This process affects creatures up and down the food chain from the plankton drifting with the ocean currents, all the way to our humpback whales feeding on krill. Also affected are the bean-sized pteropods, delicate, snail-like creatures that nourish our salmon. In other words, the ability of all ocean life to sustain itself is being compromised by the increasing acidity of our oceans.

There is no doubt about the science underlying the acidification of our oceans including the North Pacific. In fact, some of that research occurs right here at the NOAA research lab at Lena Point which overlooks feeding humpbacks. There is no question about where the carbon dioxide is coming from. There is no question about how the chemistry works. And there is only one known way to stop acidification: to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

Fortunately, public support for comprehensive energy and climate change legislation is growing. A Wall Street Journal-NBC Poll taken June 17-21 found overwhelming support for comprehensive clean energy legislation that includes carbon pollution reductions. Respondents favored comprehensive energy and carbon pollution reduction legislation by 63 percent to 31 percent. It also registered that cleaning up the BP oil disaster and energy reform is the number two priority of Americans, second only to job creation and economic growth.

These numbers represent the opportunity of the crisis borne by Gulf residents. However, this opportunity to respond to the challenge of ocean acidification may be squandered if the Republican leadership has their way as they are already labeling climate legislation as 'energy tax' our economy can't afford. To that, I ask can we afford the threat of ocean acidification to our fisheries and our whales?

Like the teaching moment I had with the whale touching the boat, the Gulf spill is a teaching moment for all of us about the high cost of our oil addiction. We must make a direct connection between the oil in the water and the carbon in our atmosphere. Then we must recognize the scientific connection between carbon in the air and increased acidity in our oceans.

With the blessing of living in whale feeding grounds lies the responsibility to keep our waters healthy and productive. We must honor the blessing of having whales in our summer life by acting accordingly when the opportunity arises. The opportunity is before us now as the Senate takes up comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Join me in encouraging Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski to support legislation that reduces our carbon emissions and puts us on the pathway to a secure clean energy future.

Kate Troll is a longtime Alaskan with over 18 years of engagement in fisheries and coastal policy. The last four years she's been involved with climate and energy policy.

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