The "evil twin of global warming", ocean acidification caused by increasing carbon dioxide, is killing billions of oysters in Northwest waters.
Major media gave it lots of play, with the Seattle Times producing a glossy series centered around the oyster carnage. Just a short excerpt from the scary ST story
Even the New York Time recently gave it front page coverage.
But there was a problem.
It really wasn't true. There is no evidence that ocean acidification is damaging oysters in Puget Sound or other local waters.
Who says so? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Washington.
Recently, in a formal legal statement provided to the U.S. District Court of Western Washington, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made it clear that the oyster/acidification scare was baseless in both fact and law. Furthermore, the Washington State Department of Ecology came to the same conclusion.
Here is a sample from the EPA document (Page 18, lines 8-12)
"There were no in situ field studies documenting adverse effects on the health of aquatic life populations in either State. Nor was there any other information documenting effects on indigenous populations of aquatic life in State waters indicating stressors attributable to ocean acidification. The only information available regarding aquatic life in ambient waters under natural conditions was inconclusive."
And here is an example of what Washington State's Department of Ecology had to say about this issue:
“None of the documents included data that showed any data outside of the accepted range [7.0-8.5], and in particular, no data demonstrated a decline in pH at any Washington marine water body of greater than 0.2 or 0.5 pH units (depending on the waterbody use designation) due to a human-caused variation within the accepted range.”
You might rightfully ask: why did oysters and acidification get into the legal arena?
Because a environmental advocacy group, The Center for Biological Diversity (CBC), filed a Complaint For Declaratory and Injunctve Relief against the EPA. The complaint is found here. Let's follow their own words:
"Shellfish in Washington and Oregon are experiencing a dramatic collapse in production. Beginning in 2005, billions of oyster larvae have perished in the Pacific Northwest hatcheries that raise young oysters in the region’s seawater, with some hatcheries losing up to 80 percent of their larvae."
...Acidified waters are already reaching surface waters along the Washington and Oregon coasts. As a result, marine organisms in the Puget Sound and along the Pacific Coast are exposed to corrosive waters. Scientists have definitively linked the oyster production problems in the hatcheries to ocean acidification. ...
For these reasons, Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief requiring EPA to partially disapprove of Oregon and Washington’s impaired waters lists and add water bodies impaired by ocean acidification to those lists.
Much of the CBC injunction is obviously false, such as their claim that waters are becoming "corrosive" or that oysters are dying in the natural environment. The EPA response, based on peer-reviewed science and direct observational evidence, shows that CBC arguments are without any basis in fact. Some samples from the EPA document:
EPA explained that there was no evidence of impairment based on non-attainment of Oregon's water quality standards applicable to ocean acidification (Pg 8, lines 23-24)
We have reviewed each of the documents referenced by CBD as support for their assertions....none of the document include data outside the accepted range...due to human-caused variation (Pg 12, lines 11-16)
There was one study, heavily cited by CBF and acidification activists by Wootton et al (2008) for one site on Tatoosh Island. EPA has analyzed this paper in detail (example found here) and a summary of the EPA conclusions are found in the EPA response:
... the study does not provide conclusive evidence that the cause of the pH change is due to human sources. For instance, the change could be caused by natural sources related to inputs from river discharges, long-shore shelf transport and planktonic specifics composition (i.e., the pH changes could be related to changes in physical conditions due to the location and changes in the patterns of primary productivity and species composition)
Regarding the same Wootton study, the Washington State Dept of Ecology stated:
This study does not provide any pH data showing impairments of Washington
waters, nor does it provide conclusive evidence that Washington’s coastal aquatic life in the
natural environment are being impaired by ocean acidification
Another major study cited by the CBD and acidification activists is Barton et al. (2012). EPA's analysis:
The Barton Study included no data regarding the health of wild aquatic organisms, and the only pH data presented in the Barton Study indicated a pH in Netarts Bay between 7.6 and 8.2, both within the acceptable range of 7.0-8.5 for marine waters and 6.5-8.5 for estuarine waters.
I could spend a lot more time giving you samples form the EPA or Washington State documents, but the bottom line is that when compelled to provide testimony in court, both agencies revealed that their analysis of observations, the literature, and basic principles compelled them to conclude that there is no evidence that ocean acidification is causing any problems for oysters in the natural waters of Oregon and Washington.
As many of you know, I agree with EPA and Washington State and have blogged with my own analysis (here and here).
The most irresponsible coverage of the oyster-acidification link has been in the Seattle Times Sea Change series.
But what is the attraction of pushing a connection between oysters and acidification that is so easy to question?
Much of it reflects the search for those concerned about global warming to find "a canary in the coal mine" that will get people motivated to take serious action.
Anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is a serious issue. The earth is going to warm in a major way due to increasing greenhouse gases. But most of the significant changes will occur in the future. And the recent "pause" in warming has been a field day for skeptics.
It is REALLY hard to get people to make major sacrifices or change their life styles NOW, to avert a threat in the future. As far as I know, the only example of such action is the Pharaoh heeding Joseph's warning about an upcoming drought!
So with warming stalled and natural variability still large compared to the greenhouse warming, some environmental activists were attracted to the ocean acidification issue. CO2 is killing oysters NOW! We must act to reduce CO2 now to save the oysters and shellfish! Very convenient. And to use this tool they were willing to stretch the truth or even to tell tall tales they had to know were inaccurate.
Some green politicians were also happy to use the oyster tale for their advantage and newspapers like the Seattle Times thought it was their route to a quick Pulitzer. Local shellfish companies (some of whom privately admitted to me that things were all hyped up and that my technical facts were quite correct) pushed the issue in public, since their industry received huge attention, and government grants to deal with "the problem" were flowing. And yes, some folks in the academic community enjoyed grant largess from the issue.
Some tall tales are ok, Some are counterproductive
But I will argue that scientists must tell the public with unvarnished facts, whether convenient or not. And telling tall tales, even with good intent, is in the end counterproductive. It provides skeptics and denier types easy ammunition to take down the environmental movement.
Let me end by saying how disappointed I have been in the Seattle Times.
When I wrote my blog criticizing the science in their story, they went on the attack and put up a response to my blog on their glossy site. They said I "ignored the science", which seems kind of strange since my blogs were ALL ABOUT THE SCIENCE.
I asked for a chance to provide my response on their site. They refused.
Well, now it is clear that the Seattle Times and EPA/State of Washington are on different sides with respect to the science.
But it is worst than that. The Seattle Times also started to boycott talking to me. If you do a search on their web site you will notice that I talked to their reporters about weather issues or my blog was quoted many times each year before I spoke out. That all changed after I criticized their oyster death story. If you want proof of this, go to their online archives and search on my name.
This is one reason I have this blog ...I can speak the truth without worrying about being cut off. Even if it is inconvenient for some.
Finally, let me note that the fixation on the ocean acidification angle has reduced attention for far more serious threats to our local waters, like massive nutrient ejections into our water by our sewer systems, agricultural run off, and disturbances to the shoreline environment.
No one has seen to have told the local clam population that local waters are "corrosive" and deadly to shellfish.