Similar coasts, similar stories: How Washington’s ocean acidification research and action is drawing global interest

WA Governor’s Office
Nov 26 · 5 min read

Jennifer Hennessey is Gov. Jay Inslee’s policy expert on ocean health and environmental issues. She recently traveled to Chile to help researchers better understand the impact of ocean acidification on Washington and Chile.

Chile recently invited a group of Washington experts to share our state’s ocean acidification story, what we’ve learned and how we’re fighting it.

That’s because our story is a warning splash for the rest of the world.

Waves crash against Quintay, a small village on Chile’s central coast near a lab where researchers study ocean acidification. This phenomenon is taking place up and down coastlines of Washington and Chile. (Photo by Jennifer Hennessey)

Washington is unique because we were the first area to create a comprehensive action plan after experiencing ocean acidification. Ocean acidification happens when our oceans absorb carbon dioxide. This means our ocean life ends up living in more acidic environments. It isn’t a good thing because it messes with the ideal living conditions that the organisms need to thrive in. And as climate change worsens, our oceans are only getting more acidic.

Ocean acidification makes it harder for shellfish to build and maintain their shells. But that’s just the start. Today’s scientific research is uncovering a host of other ocean health issues because of acidification. For example, ocean acidification makes it hard for salmon to detect predators. And ocean acidification may also cause plants in the ocean (algal blooms) to produce more toxins.

A group of researchers and ocean acidification experts visit the hatchery and labs at Quintay in Chile. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Ono, Ocean Conservancy)

While this is a global problem, the Pacific Northwest is particularly vulnerable to impacts. Like Washington, Chile’s long coastline rests along the Eastern Pacific Ocean — a place where ocean currents bring nutrient-rich water to the surface. This rich water fosters a highly productive marine environment and creates a greater risk of ocean acidification impacts, since these rich waters also carry the fingerprint of our previous carbon emissions from 50 years ago (this process is called upwelling). And, just like us, Chile has strong cultural and economic ties to fisheries and aquaculture. That means the country is highly vulnerable to how climate change impacts ocean conditions and coastal communities.

Our ocean absorbs nearly one-third of carbon dioxide emissions. The open ocean already has 30 percent more acidity than before the Industrial Revolution took off in Washington.

When ocean acidification first affected the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest, we had no idea where our state’s efforts to address this problem would take us. The shellfish growers had dying oysters. They engaged the scientists from the start because they knew they had to act fast. From there, they informed government leaders and other community groups about the issue. Gov. Christine Gregoire created a Blue Ribbon Panel on ocean acidification to look into this. The panel created a plan of action that Washington still uses and updates today — leadership at the highest level really helped solve the issue and Gov. Jay Inslee said the support won’tstop anytime soon.

Jennifer Hennessey stands with Chile’s COP25 Ambassador, Rodrigo Olsen. Olsen is responsible for helping Chile highlight the importance of including the ocean in climate change efforts. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Ono, Ocean Conservancy)

“Ocean acidification is already negatively affecting the West Coast,” Inslee said. “We know that healthy oceans sustain jobs, support coastal economies and feed billions of people. Now all of this is at risk and will cause great damage to our shellfish industry and coastal communities.”

As Gov. Inslee’s policy expert on ocean acidification, I was part of the group that traveled to Chile. I joined Washington State shellfish growers, a scientist from Washington’s Ocean Acidification Center, and the ocean acidification program staff at The Ocean Conservancy.

We visited a lab in Quintay, on Chile’s coast where Chilean researchers study how ocean acidification and rising water temperatures affect native species.

We talked to small-scale fishing communities in Quintay and Valparaiso where changing ocean conditions affect the species they catch. Our shellfish growers particularly enjoyed meeting mussel farmers in Puerto Montt where they discussed how ocean acidification weakens mussels.

We also met with university scientists who monitor and research ocean acidification and with government officials who want to know how they can better address the impacts of ocean acidification.

Jennifer Hennessey (in purple coat) stands with the Washington State and Ocean Conservancy delegation, Chilean scientists, and mussel farmers in Puerto Montt in front of buoys. These are called mussel floats. Mussels grow by grabbing onto the bouy’s underwater lines. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Ono, Ocean Conservancy)

We shared Washington’s experience with how we approached ocean acidification — how it impacted shellfish growers and led to collaboration among scientists, government, growers and other local groups to improve our understanding and put our knowledge into action. Through this information exchange, both of our regions learned we need a diverse set of people engaged in this work. We also learned we need a way to coordinate the flow of scientific information and knowledge to decision makers.

Thanks to the governor and the Legislature, we are weaving ocean impacts and solutions into the fabric of our environmental and climate policy work. As a result, we have a more robust, integrated and sustainable approach for addressing ocean acidification and other climate impacts on our ocean.

We’ve also successfully partnered with Oregon, California and the Province of British Columbia to understand how acidification affects our entire west coast region.

With these partners, Washington launched the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification in 2016. This is how states, nations, tribes and cities can take collective action against ocean acidification. We’re elevating the importance of ocean issues in climate forums, and sharing lessons-learned. We’re leveraging our assets. We’re investing together. And we’re growing our region’s climate policy leadership.

Containers for an ocean acidification experiment hold native Chilean shellfish. Scientists are trying to figure out how ocean acidification impacts these shellfish and also find out if it affects their behavior with each other. (Photo by Jennifer Hennessey)

Chile has taken similar collaborative steps. This year, the country is the president of the United Nations international climate conference. Recognizing the value of including ocean issues in climate discussions, Chile launched the Because the Ocean Initiative to help nations better address ocean issues in their climate commitments. And, Chile was one of the first nations to join the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification. In their COP25 presidency, Chile and others will highlight the connection to and importance of the ocean in climate change actions. Repeatedly, Chile has emphasized the importance of urgent action. It’s even summarized in the COP25 motto: Time for Action.

At the trip’s closing session, I reflected how Washington’s special mix of science, diverse collaborators, innovation and leadership put us at the forefront of action. We don’t just talk about the problems up here. We do something about them.

Chile and Washington share the same optimism and courage to fight this. It turns out our story, our approach and our leadership resonated not just with others along the West Coast, but around the world. And now, we have one more strong partner to collaborate with and learn from.

Washington State Governor's Office

News and updates from Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and his administration.

WA Governor’s Office

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News and updates from Gov. Jay Inslee and his administration.

Washington State Governor's Office

News and updates from Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and his administration.

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