AROUND 10 YEARS AGO, Jeremy Brown noticed something strange hanging from his hooks. Brown is a troller, sailing solo out of Bellingham in a 42-foot boat he named the Barcarole, after a genre of Italian boatmen’s tunes. He deploys as few as a dozen or as many as 70 hooks at a time, depending on whether he’s after halibut, black cod, or albacore, or king, pink, or coho salmon. Trolling is about as clean as commercial fishing gets; it pulls up very little untargeted bycatch or sea-bottom debris. But now and then Brown’s hooks snag a branch of coral from the little-studied deepwater reefs that, unbeknownst to many locals, lie off the Northwest coast.
For two decades the coral samples Brown pulled up looked radiantly healthy, “nice, crisp, brightly colored.” Now, he says, “the coral tends to look dull and lifeless. And it’s covered with slime.” Brown puzzled over the change. He read around and listened to scientists. He talked to other people who draw their living from the sea, some of whom are scientists in their own right: “There are PhDs fishing out here—literal rocket scientists. The guy who helped design the fuel system for the space shuttle is trolling out of Friday Harbor.” And he came to suspect that something was very wrong beneath the dark waters of the North Pacific.
For more than a century, young Northwesterners have sought their fortune fishing off Alaska, risking their necks on the icy boat decks or their fingers on the slime line. Most work for a few seasons and try to save enough to go out on their own. Brown is a lifer; for him fishing is a vocation and a cause, not just a living.
He grew up on a farm in a Cornish fishing village outside Falmouth, at England’s sea-splashed southwest corner. “I dabbled a bit in fishing,” he says. “When you have friends who fish, you fill in on the crew. But fishing was never a serious option at that point.” Centuries of civilization had filled the waters off Europe with waste, and most of the traditional fisheries had withered; mackerel were the main catch. “Economically, it was marginal.”
Brown went traveling and in 1979, at the age of 23, washed up out here the way many guys do: “There’s always a story about a woman there”—in this case, the woman he’s still married to. They met on the East Coast, but she was from Western Washington. “Once I saw this country, the sea and mountains, I was hooked.” He worked on Deadliest Catch –style crab boats, “just long enough to realize I didn’t want to do something like that. The artisanal fishery appeals more to me.” Brown and his wife bought a little boat and started trolling, first in Alaska, then out of Bellingham. Today he sells all his catch to a few restaurants, the sort that name their fishers and other suppliers on the menu. He waxes as passionate as the menu writers: “Seafood is one of the healthiest foods there is, and it’s our last truly authentic food. Everything else we eat is not what your grandfather ate…. For me, the fishing life is absolutely worth fighting for.”
Jeremy Brown is no newcomer to that fight. He’s active in the Washington Trollers Association and Save Our Wild Salmon, an alliance of fishers and environmentalists dedicated to saving the spawning rivers on which salmon depend. He’s been to Washington, DC, five times, knocking on official doors, talking about everything from salmon recovery and the Endangered Species Act to health care for fishermen. He came to suspect that the problems didn’t end with the salmon runs—that there was something bigger out there than dams and pavement runoff and all the other things people do to rivers. Something that would affect not just valuable fish but everything that lives in the sea.
In 1999, Brown read in the journal Nature about a company named Planktos, which proposed to stop global warming with a painless geoengineering scheme: seeding the sea surface with powdered iron, a key nutrient for phytoplankton. This, Planktos argued, would grow bumper plankton crops, which would take up carbon dioxide via photosynthesis. Then the plankton would die and sink to the bottom, locking up all that carbon. At the same time, other geoengineering advocates proposed capturing CO2 from power plants and burying it deep underwater. To Brown, these schemes sounded “crazy—just another way of dumping pollutants into the ocean. You’re essentially just pushing crap back up the pipes.”
Brown wondered just what that crap did in the sea. He read more about the role of carbon in the ocean’s chemistry. And he remembered the deathly coral stubs his hooks had snagged.
Coral polyps are little animals that look like miniature sea anemones. They build collective skeletons, which can form fantastic shapes and sprawling reefs, by extracting a mineral called calcium carbonate from seawater. They share this trick, called calcification, with a vast array of shelled and plated organisms: single-celled algae and other phytoplankton, barnacles and snails, starfish and sea urchins, shrimp and crabs. When they die, their shells and skeletons accumulate and, squeezed and heaved by geologic forces, become rocks and mountains: limestone and marble, the chalky white cliffs of Dover.
The ability of marine creatures to lay up calcium carbonate—to build shells and coral reefs—depends on the chemical balance of the water in which they live. One thing that affects this balance is carbon dioxide, which gets released when humans burn oil, coal, and forests and when, say, a dead whale decomposes on the sea floor. Seawater absorbs carbon dioxide and converts it to carbonic acid. As acids go, carbonic is mild stuff; it gives carbonated beverages their tang. But it has dire effects on calcifying critters, reducing the carbonate concentration in water and hindering them from developing shells and skeletons. If it gets strong enough, it dissolves those shells.
In life, these calcifying organisms are key parts of the marine food chain, starting with phytoplankton. Several that swim in vast clouds around the world—crustacean krill and copepods and tiny snail-like mollusks called pteropods—are essential food for young salmon and for the little fish that adult salmon and other big fish eat. Others—oysters, clams, and mussels—are prized food for humans.
Down the coast, Sue Cudd and Mark Wiegardt, wife and husband, have been growing oysters for decades. Cudd, a biologist, operated the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery on Netarts Bay, near Tillamook, Oregon. Wiegardt managed oyster farms on Willapa Bay, where his family had been in the oyster business since the 1880s. Four years ago Wiegardt moved to Tillamook and joined his wife in running Whiskey Creek—just in time to see its business crater.
Whiskey Creek produces oyster larvae, aka seed, for growers from Mexico to British Columbia. In 2007 those larvae started dying en masse; midway in their cycle their shells mysteriously stopped growing. The next year Wiegardt and Cudd lost 80 percent of their larvae. At first they thought they had a culprit: a bacterium called Vibrio tubiashii that perennially threatens oysters. But cleaning out the bacteria didn’t stop the carnage. They came to suspect that V. tubiashii was “more a symptom of the problem” than a cause. “It’s opportunistic,” says Wiegardt. “It eats dead and dying material.” Like many bacteria, it thrives in acidic conditions.
In 2008 scientists from Oregon State University started monitoring Whiskey Creek’s water chemistry; NOAA scientists from Seattle monitored the waters offshore. Their data together revealed that the die-offs coincided with spikes in the water’s acidity (or, more precisely, with drops in its alkalinity, since seawater is mildly alkaline). These spikes reflected surges of cold water from deep offshore, stirred up by what Wiegardt says were unusually intense winds: “There was a direct correlation between upwelling events, aggressive northwest winds, and our inability to grow larvae.”
Often this upwelled water had more than three times the relative acidity of the surface waters where oysters grow. It even looked different, says Wiegardt: “It’s bluish-gray, with a distinct charcoal look. It looks dead.” But it didn’t harm adult oysters—only their larvae.
Whiskey Creek and the Northwest’s other shellfish hatcheries had become accidental laboratories for one of the hottest, and most worrisome, questions in ocean and climate studies—a phenomenon so new to science that the term for it, ocean acidification, was coined just seven years ago.
When Jeremy Brown headed out for salmon last spring, the herring and needlefish that the salmon usually feed on were missing, both from his echo sounder and from the bellies of the salmon he caught: “They just weren’t showing up where you’d expect to find them.” He wonders if acidification might be the reason; these small fish feed on pteropods and other shelled zooplankton.
The role of carbon in the die-offs at Whiskey Creek is much more firmly established. Even a seeming anomaly—the fact that only oyster larvae died while grown oysters thrived—pointed to acidification. Many marine animals, including coral and pteropods, sheath themselves with aragonite, a carbonate crystal that dissolves readily as the pH of their aquatic environment drops. Others, including mature oysters, build shells of calcite, a much more resistant crystal.
Wiegardt and Cudd had their culprit. But correcting the problem, even in the confined quarters of a hatchery tank, is another matter. Simply buffering the water to make it more alkaline doesn’t work, says Wiegardt: “Seawater chemistry is very complex. There are lots of trace elements there”—and upwellings of carbonated water may affect their balances, too.
Ocean acidification and global warming share a common cause; the seas have absorbed an estimated third of the CO2 released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and their average acidity has risen about 30 percent. But the link between recent warming and the carbonated water that’s welled up and struck Whiskey Creek is at best indirect. Scientists can date water by its chemical signature, and these upwellings contain “old water” that’s sat in the deep for 50 years or more. But OSU shellfish aquaculturist Chris Langdon, who’s monitored Whiskey Creek, says that old water’s acidity may still reflect recent emissions: Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere can stimulate bumper plankton blooms that die, sink, and rot, acidifying deep old water. And the winds that then stir up that water may themselves result from surface warming.
Forestalling global warming won’t necessarily stop acidification. If massive injections of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere (via either volcanoes or geoengineering) blocked the sun’s heat, but humans kept burning fossil fuels, the oceans would continue to take up CO2. Acidification might even speed up, because colder water absorbs more CO2.
Mark Wiegardt is hardly a global warming Jeremiah; he’s wary of the term, perhaps even a bit skeptical. But he and Brown have grown impatient with people who say carbon effects are mere matters for study—or, worse, just hype. “It’s not trumped up when you’re trying to grow oysters and it’s not working—and your livelihood depends on it,” he says. “If this business fails, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
And so, last December, they and 10 of their fellow toilers of the sea—oystermen from Maine and Washington, a shrimper from Louisiana, a Maryland crab processor, a seiner and a troller and a crabber from Alaska—pounded the marble halls of Washington, DC, talking to the senators who this spring will wrestle with the climate legislation that’s already passed the House. At the same time, one of their comrades, the owner of one of TV’s Deadliest Catch crab boats, flew to Copenhagen to pitch in at the UN climate conference.
“We let them know right up front we’re feeling profoundly the effects of what’s happening,” says Brown. Indeed, the changes below the waterline alarm him more than the warming above it. “We can learn to deal with moderate variations in temperature,” he says measuredly. “Fundamental chemical changes in the ocean are more profoundly worrying. If the zooplankton lose their shells, the wheels come off the bicycle. The whole ecosystem collapses.”
Their message was simple and heartfelt: Pass meaningful carbon caps. And remember, it’s not just about the climate. It’s the ocean, stupid.