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Politics Northwest

The Seattle Times political team explores national, state and local politics.

September 19, 2013 at 4:22 PM

Cantwell questions NOAA nominee about ocean acidification

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell on Thursday sought a commitment from the Obama administration’s nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that she would make ocean acidification a significant priority.

But the exchange briefly turned, albeit obliquely, to an issue at the heart of the debate about the U.S. response to ocean acidification: funding.

In response to a Seattle Times’ series examining the current and projected effects of changing sea chemistry in the Pacific Ocean, Cantwell asked Kathryn Sullivan, acting chief at NOAA, how the agency would respond to acidification’s growing threat to marine resources.

Follow the discussion here at 2:37.

“As you know very well, Senator, ocean acidification is one of the creeping threats of global change and the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Sullivan said during her confirmation hearing Thursday. “It’s a very difficult problem. It’s going to be a very difficult problem to monitor and provide foresight about to coastal communities.”

Sullivan said the agency had “made some progress” by adding warning systems to alert coastal communities and shellfish growers about incoming corrosive water or harmful algal blooms caused in part by rising carbon-dioxide emissions. Those systems already have helped the Northwest oyster industry — the first business in the world to feel the effects of acidification –  avoid pumping sour water into hatcheries when young oysters are at their most vulnerable stages of development.

But “it’s a large-scale, truly global problem, as you know,” Sullivan added, “systemic in affecting the Earth’s systems but it’s also patchy and has very patchy local consequences. We will certainly continue to work forward with you, if I am confirmed, to make sure that we can put in the right sort of observing, forecasting and monitoring systems to help us be as alert and aware and provide as much foresight as possible on this condition.”

The exchange turned slightly more adversarial, however, when Cantwell sought more definitive answers.

“So you will develop sensors in critical areas,” Cantwell asked. “You will continue to do research? You will continue to deploy adaptive breeding programs, recommend management?”

Sullivan said, “Within the resources available to us, Senator, we will certainly do that. All of those are components of our current ocean acidification program as you know.”

Cantwell, in response, said, “OK. Within resources. That’s an interesting way of phrasing it.”

“I guess I would say we had to come up with the resources to get that initial program that you said pays dividends,” Cantwell continued. “And without it I think three or four or five generations of shellfish growers would have been wiped out. And we grow something like 25 percent of the shellfish in one bay in our state. So this is a very serious issue. So I hope that we cannot predicate it based on resources but on the urgency for this industry and for the resources to have this information.”

When scientists first tentatively linked the deaths of billions of oysters to changing sea chemistry back in 2009, Cantwell was one of the early backers of efforts supporting more research and monitoring, particularly for the hard-hit industry.

But the Seattle Times’ series, “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn,” showed that ocean acidification, caused by CO2 emissions, is happening faster than scientists initially predicted and poses a significant threat to marine resources, particularly commercial shellfish and fishing in the Northwest and Alaska. And it revealed that federal government spending on acidification research and monitoring across a half-dozen different agencies, including NOAA, is roughly $30 million a year — less than scientists have told Congress they need, and less, even, than the federal government has spent in some years just studying sea lions in Alaska.

See the stories here: www.seattletimes.com/seachange

Comments | More in Congress, Politics Northwest, U.S. Senate | Topics: NOAA, ocean acidification, Sea Change


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