Our waters need Senate action too

Posted: Sunday, August 01, 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 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?" "To take care of our oceans," I responded causally to this teaching moment.

Later in the week as I was reading some of the material in my Inbox regarding ocean issues, I reflected back on this whale touch moment. I realized 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 but our oceans are under siege as well, only it is far less visible. Our oceans are currently being subjected to ocean acidification, caused by our growing emissions of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution.

As immense as the Gulf oil spill is, the death and damage it is inflicting pales in comparison to growing ocean acidification caused by climate change. The oil spill is a here and now disaster and the spewing well will be stopped in the next few days (we hope). Ocean acidification, on the other hand, is gradually building up to a disaster that could change sea life as we know it worldwide for many generations.

The science is pretty basic: About half of the worldwide carbon dioxide in the air is absorbed by the ocean, where it dissolves to form carbonic acid. The more carbon absorbed, the more carbonic acid created. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this level of absorption has caused an increase in acidity of about 30 percent since the start of the industrial age. This is a serious problem.

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. The first animals to feel the bite of ocean acidification are the bean-sized pteropods, delicate snail-like creatures and even smaller plankton. These organisms provide food for our salmon during their lives in the ocean. In other words, the ability of all ocean life to sustain the most basic building blocks of the marine food chain 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. 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 recent (June 17-21) Wall Street Journal-NBC Poll 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 an 'energy tax' that 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 a responsibility to keep our waters healthy and productive. We must honor this privilege of having whales regularly in our summer life by acting accordingly when the opportunity arises. Unfortunately, the prime opportunity just slipped by as Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other Republican Senators beholden to Big Oil were able to block a comprehensive energy and climate legislation from reaching the Senate floor.

In Alaska, where the seafood industry is the state's largest private sector employer, one would think that the productivity of our oceans matters as much as the oil in our oceans. It doesn't need to be an either/or choice as noted by Sen. Mark Begich's record of supporting energy development and action on climate change.

For the sake of our oceans, Senator Murkowski needs to be reminded that she too can find balance and be more than just an advocate for Big Oil. If everyone in Juneau whose summer employment and enjoyment is directly related to whale watching delivers this message to Senator Murkowski, then perhaps she will re-consider her position on this vital legislation. It's all part of giving back.

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

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