Acidifying Waters in Puget Sound

drawing of a whale jumping out of the water in front of the Seattle skyline

Carbon pollution remains a troubling problem for the health of the earth, but ocean acidification in Washington is a new area of research suggesting we need climate action now to save ourselves in the future.

The midnight blue water of Puget Sound sparkles with glints of sunlight hitting its choppy waves. While Seattle’s fresh fish shops bustle with customers looking for the catch of the day, the crisp sea breeze washes a refreshing salt water scent through Pike’s Place Market. Tourists join residents of the San Juan Islands aboard ferry boats that cruise the sound at mellow speeds. If they are lucky, passengers may even catch a glimpse of Orca whales or seals in the water. Between Mt. Rainier and Puget Sound, the scenery is beautiful. However, the ramifications of climate change threaten the region’s scenic beauty, wildlife and related industries, such as seafood and tourism.

“There’s constant exchange of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the oceans everywhere in the world, and when carbon dioxide moves from the atmosphere into the water, it induces changes,” says Micah Horowith, a scientist on the state Environmental Assessment Program. This overabundance of carbon in oceanic waters is known as ocean acidification, and it is a rising issue for the area.

The ocean becomes acidic when it absorbs too much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is a natural oceanic process to convert atmospheric carbon into other compounds, like bicarbonate. However, as carbon dioxide levels have accelerated due to human use of fossil fuels and deforestation practices, the oceans can’t process it fast enough. For a biodiverse and economically strong fishing area like Puget Sound, this poses a huge threat.

Washington scientists studying the issue now understand that in the next 40 to 50 years, even more acidified waters will flow to estuaries like Puget Sound. This means we are already late on finding solutions to the problem which could threaten species throughout Puget Sound and the state’s fishing economy.

Puget Sound is a particularly interesting estuary because of its geographical location and makeup. Just 10,000 years ago, glaciers lined the sound, carving parts of its waterbeds to deeper levels in some areas while keeping the shorelines shallow. At its deepest, Point Jefferson, the sound reaches 930 feet below sea level, according to the Seattle Aquarium. Water temperatures and pH levels vary depending on the depth of the water in a given area. The sound reaches from the Canadian border to Olympia, Washington at about 100 miles.

According to the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, an online guide to protecting the Puget Sound waterways, the ocean is constantly absorbing 25 to 30 percent of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In a healthy oceanic atmosphere, the carbon absorbed into the water would help the water carry out its natural buffering process. This essentially means the pH levels in the ocean would not rise to be too acidic, and the water would remain oxygen-rich. With ocean acidification, this buffering cannot happen at the speed it needs to; thus, the pH levels become abnormally acidic. Too much carbon dioxide in the water can also cause hypoxia: a state of low oxygen. Under these conditions, marine life can suffocate.

The Washington coastline is at heightened risk of acidification because of a natural process called upwelling. Ginormous currents in the Pacific Ocean are constantly running from east to west and back. These currents help spread nutrients throughout the ocean. The North Pacific Current is the main current that runs west to east. It slowly moves deep ocean water towards the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. The current spans all the way from the coast of Japan to the coast of Canada, flowing across the entire Pacific Ocean. Due to the depths at which much of the nutrients in this current are coming from, the water we are seeing on the coasts now is actually water that absorbed atmospheric carbon from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Because of this time capsule-like effect, ocean acidification from damage decades ago only became a problem in Puget Sound over the past ten years. “More carbon dioxide is going to produce more acidification over time,” said Horowith.

His team has analyzed the water health of Puget Sound for about three years. They specifically look at how much dissolved inorganic carbon is in water samples and how the pH level or acidity of the sound is increasing. Puget Sound receives even more carbon inputs because of the inland flowing rivers that feed into it, too.

Horowith said, “Because Puget Sound is inland and isolated a bit from coastal waters and exchange, it does mean that freshwater inputs are really important. Without diving into that too much, freshwater has much lower pH and much lower buffering capacity, so in estuarine areas where rivers and streams meet the sound, you get these mixing where in that zone there’s a mix of fresh and saltwater.”

Scientists also monitor the presence of freshwater and the compound contributions it makes to the saltwater estuary. Horowith said, “The alkalinity that comes into Puget Sound ultimately comes from freshwater sources, and that’s what buffers all of our waters against acidification.” He explained that temperatures rising in the atmosphere will ultimately shift Washington to have more rain and less snow in the winters. With reduced or suspended snow melt, the time at which freshwater hits Puget Sound will shift, delaying when those buffering compounds reach the acidified ocean water.

Kelly Ferron, a water researcher in the Washington Department of Ecology, said, “We’re both looking at nitrogen and carbon in the water, and because Puget Sound is this very developed area, we have a lot of nutrients and pollutants that are going into the water that are exacerbating ocean acidification that is already happening due to atmospheric carbon.”

The multitude of freshwater rivers and streams that flow into Puget Sound introduce negative factors to the water body from substances including agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. This is bad for the water and the resident aquacultures.

Ocean acidification poses multiple threats to marine species in Puget Sound and freshwater streams nearby. Ecosystems within these bodies of water face impacts all the way up their food chains.

One of the most famed Washington species, Orca whales, face threats from acidification. The species was officially listed as critically endangered in 2005 according to the Washington Governor’s office. As of December of 2020, the total population of Southern Resident Orcas in Puget Sound was at 74 individuals split between three pods.

Climate change is not only threatening human survival globally, but for many Indigenous cultures, the land and species suffering the consequences are integral and beautiful parts of their beliefs and traditions.

The Lummi tribe in the San Juan Islands is fighting to save the Orcas. These whales are closely related to Lummi ancestors and their tribal origin story. “Totem poles are carved with the orca’s image, sometimes accompanied by a human rider as a symbol of rebirth. Tribal members talk of feeling the whales passing by, of a calling from their relatives,” writes Levi Pulkkinen in a 2019 article from The Guardian.

According to a 2019 report by the Orca Task Force for Gov. Jay Inslee, the whale population is struggling to grow due to a lack of food resources. Chinook salmon are the main source of food for Orcas, who need to eat 18 to 25 salmon a day.
As a keystone species, identified by National Geographic as those “critical to the survival of other species in a system,” the Chinook salmon also provide food for more than 130 species, including bears, birds of prey, and seals throughout the state’s waterways.

Several recent studies on ocean acidification have shown Chinook salmon may be losing their ability to smell, and this poses a huge threat to their survival. In a study published in 2018, Chase Williams, a researcher for UW exposed Coho salmon to the same elevated carbon dioxide levels seen in modern ocean waters. Afterwards, Williams dropped a scent into the water to replicate that of the salmon’s predators to test their reactions. The fish ignored it and this would make them more vulnerable to their predators. “They’re still smelling odorant, but the way their brain is processing that signal is altered,” Williams said. “Before, they would avoid this predator odor.”

Salmon also rely on their sense of smell in order to return to their spawning grounds in freshwater streams to repopulate and find food. If Washington’s construction of dams throughout its major rivers was not already decreasing salmon’s chances at survival, acidification of the water may be putting them at even more risk. If Coho salmon can’t protect themselves from predators or find their way to their spawning grounds, their downfall could decrease species’s populations across entire food chains.

Small shellfish species, like oysters, have been some of the hardest hit so far by acidification. They need a naturally occurring compound, aragonite, to build their shells, and specific water temperatures and pH levels. As acidification alters these levels, it becomes harder for oysters to make it past this hatchling stage at all. “Basically, when you have water with aragonite saturation state above one then oysters can build their shells fairly well. When it falls below one it’s much more difficult for them to build shells,” Horowith said. His team has funding to run these tests at 19 stations throughout the state.

Taylor Shellfish Farms is a hatchery based in Shelton, Washington. Bill Dewey, an oyster farmer for forty years and spokesman for the hatchery, shared his firsthand experience with this problem. In 2007, Dewey and his coworkers had no way of knowing it was acidification that was causing their larvae to die. “Putting a finger on it and saying, ‘Well that one died because of OA, and this one died because of this and this, you know you can’t do it. It was really hard to quantify.” Dewey said that from 2007 to 2009 oyster larvae production for Taylor and Whiskey Creek, two of the biggest oyster hatcheries on the West Coast, was reduced by about 75 percent, causing substantial losses for the industry.

In total, the downfall cost the oyster economy an estimated $110 million throughout the late two thousands, according to Michelle Hampson in an article about Whiskey Creek Hatchery. This tremendous loss in revenue for the hatcheries became an environmental story that gained momentum and sparked a movement in science.

Media attention helped. “It’s an industry that people can relate to because it’s food, it’s jobs, it’s a novel industry, and for whatever reason our story was popular and got broadcast. You know I say it drew a lot of attention to the issue. We got OA into people’s vocabulary pretty quickly, and I think a lot of that is attributed to that oyster story,” said Dewey. The story did cause waves in the research behind ocean acidification.

There are two things a baby oyster must do in its first two days of life. “It’s gotta build a shell to protect itself, and it’s gotta protect a velum which is the organ it feeds and swims with in order to be able to get more energy to continue to grow. And it’s got to do that with the energy that’s stored within the egg. When there’s not enough carbonate ions, it struggles to build that shell,” said Dewey.

The hatcheries needed a solution, fast. Researchers and politicians wanted to know what was going on. Much of the research on ocean acidification we have now is attributed to the oyster industry.

In 2008, Richard Feely, an OA scientist in Seattle, reached out to Dewey. It became clear to the industry, after Feely’s talk on ocean acidification at a Growers Conference that year, that acidification was the issue. “I missed his talk, but I got there a little bit late, and when I walked in everybody was kind of walking around with their chins on the floor like somebody has just died or something,” said Dewey. “We’re not gonna convince the world to stop emitting carbon dioxide.”

The shellfish industry knew ocean acidification was only going to intensify as more carbon-soaked water inevitably upwells in the future, even if we stopped all carbon emissions today. Teams from Oregon State University, University of Washington, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) joined forces. This is when Burke Hales, an OSU scientist, invented the Burkolator: a machine to test water carbon chemistry in real-time. “We learned that we can treat that water by adding certain carbonate to it and adjust the carbonate chemistry to make it right for oysters to build their shells,” Dewey said.

The Burkolator soon circulated in the state governmental policy talk, and then Gov. Gregoire passed a 3.2 million dollar budget item to go towards ocean acidification as she left office in 2013. When Gov. Inslee stepped into office, he allotted 1.8 million of that budget towards the spread of Burkolators to hatcheries.

The Department of Ecology developed a model in which scientists could test different levels of pH and other changing compounds in the Puget Sound to better understand what the future of acidification might look like. This oceanographic model is called the Salish Sea Model, and Ferron’s team created it.

Ferron can essentially use preexisting knowledge on tidal influxes and hydrology to learn from past patterns to predict future ones. “It’s ideal to have a model where you can play around with like, ‘Okay, well let’s say we can reduce nutrients and carbon dioxide this amount. What does that do to the water quality?’ and you can toggle and play around with that,” Ferron said. She explained it in terms of going to the doctor and checking vital signs. The water has vital signs, like aragonite saturation, pH levels, oxygen, and bacteria levels, that are constantly being checked in order to determine its health and favorability for species.

Her team also uses the most sensitive species in the area to base their predictions and recommendations off of. Ferron said, “An oyster is really sensitive and needs a specific temperature and pH level, and that’s more sensitive than a salmon. We’ll use those levels to set what we think is clean water and that’s the level we want our water to be at.” These processes ultimately help the Department of Ecology decide whether the current situation needs policies behind it for future protection.

Ferron said communicating the gravity of the issue to the public is challenging because acidification is not an easy topic to understand. She believes getting people to vote for these policies, they must know how it works.

Dorothy Kidd, a media studies professor at University of San Francisco and climate activist, studies how the media impacts our awareness of environmental issues. “Media intervention is really what’s making people more conscious of that [climate change],” said Kidd. “Not only has there been an increase in interest in terms of social media, but a lot of the groups on the frontlines have been using social media really really effectively, and definitely a lot of the indigenous groups.”

The Washington Sea Grant lists easy ways for the public and the fishing community in the area to help stop the acceleration of acidification. Carpooling, picking up pet waste, and reducing consumption of animal proteins to cut back on water pollutants are all ways to stop waterway pollution.

Washington’s progress both economically and politically towards environmental sustainability, specifically within the realm of ocean acidification, has motivated other states to initiate plans for their coastlines. Dewey said the Pacific Coast Collaborative was started in 2013 which unites California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia under the central goal of being environmentally conscious. Dewey has also spoken at numerous United Nations conferences on his experience at Taylor Shellfish Farms and has met with growers in international locations like New Zealand and Thailand to promote the need to fight against OA.

Dewey recently helped found the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. He said the group unites “growers from 20 different states that are all collaborating to tell our stories about how climate change and changing ocean chemistry is impacting our businesses.”

Gov. Jay Inslee has also helped put new policies into place to make Washington move towards a clean energy future. The Clean Transportation Policy, introduced in 2019, sets goals for the state to introduce more electric vehicles and ferries in order to bring carbon emissions down. On top of this, the state eliminated sales tax on the purchase of electric bus tickets. Inslee also signed five bills to help protect and recover the Southern Resident Orca pods.

Living in an oil-based economy also makes it harder to mobilize a movement toward electric vehicles and environmentally-friendly lifestyles. Theology and environmental ethics professor at USF, Sam Mickey, says while local grassroot organizations are important to be involved in to make change, we need to elect policymakers who will take steps away from oil dependency. Mickey said, “The driver is gonna be people waking up and realizing these changes are an imminent threat. It’s an existential threat to human life and really all life one earth.”

Ocean acidification is a direct ramification of the larger carbon pollution problem that is damaging environments globally. Continuing to ignore this issue will only help perpetuate environmental damage and economic struggle.

Ferron agrees with this viewpoint. “If we want to make these big urgent changes and reductions in CO2 emissions that we need, we need big systemic change,” she said. “That’s going to come through strategic policy and good leadership. Whether that’s like your community leader, you know even starting from city council, up to your state leaders up to the federal level, that’s really how we’re going to address these big climate issues.”

Story and art work done by Elizabeth Oswalt, graduating Media Studies student.