September 07, 2014

EPA Takes on the Oyster/Acidification Scaremongers

It's been a convenient story for some.

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.


  1. I had some oysters yesterday at a local seafood restaurant. They were delicious! If they were threatened by acidifying seawater, they would have been much more expensive than the $1/oyster I paid. The bigger threat is vibrio vulcansis, not lowering pH. In any event, anyone who thinks Puget Sound is at risk of getting more acidic doesn't even have a basic understanding of how the water cycle works here in W Washington. We have constant runoff from the mountains, which tends to bring more basic conditions into the sound. The real threat is agriculture and aquaculture which are introducing massive amounts of bacteria and algae into the Sound.

  2. I attended a presentation put on by the owner of Taylor Shellfish. A substantial part of the presentation was devoted to how ocean acidification has effected their business. They have had to build an oyster hatchery in Hawaii where the ocean water has not been effected by the upwelling of acidic seawater on the West coast. Maybe Cliff can explain why a business like Taylor Shellfish would spend whatever large amount of money,probably millions, on a hatchery in Hawaii if ocean acidification was not a problem they had to deal with.

  3. hempy,
    They made a big and expensive mistake. Taylor did not understand what the problem was (the ph of the fresh morning upwelled water) and unnecessarily spent a lot of money. I have confirmed this in conversations with some folks at Taylor..cliff

  4. Very interesting,thanks Cliff.I really appreciate your unbiased perspective.

  5. The AGW crowed jumped the shark and are now looking for a place to land.

    Instead of apocalypse, how about stewardship? Of course stewardship doesn't drive the political agenda with quite the same religious fervor.

  6. Thank you Cliff for sticking to the facts even when others would rather stretch the truth to fit their agenda! There are so many half truths and or out right distortions on both sides of the AGW debate and it's affects on our environment. It can be very frustrating trying to get to the truth of what our climate is actually doing NOW without all the ridiculous spin. Keep it up please!

  7. "No evidence" points out that more research is needed. Just recall, however, that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

    Trouble with shellfish is one of the reasonable things to expect of ocean acidification. Whether there are more important causes of the shellfish decline is why we need more research.

  8. As a long-time environmentalist, it saddens me to see the green movement turn brown; fascist elements have found the environment as a cause with which to control the middle class.

  9. William Calvin,
    I agree with you completely. The problem is that folks, like the Seattle Times and some advocacy groups, are stating explicitly that acidification is causing severe problems now. That is clearly untrue...cliff

  10. This is a good overview from UW scientists that some may find useful:

  11. I will Boycott the Seattle Times for supporting and fabricating lies.
    Alright Cliff Mass, keep fighting the good fight!

  12. This thread is suffering from generalities and too much extrapolation. The sky is not falling yet, but there are warning signs. One of them has been the failure of larval oysters in aquaculture on the Washington coast to "set" on substrate and begin to develop shells. This results in failure to recruit adult oysters. The greatest failure to set occurs at high tides when slightly acidic upwelled waters enters the oyster hatcheries.

    The average pH of seawater is 8.2. Atmospheric CO2, enters the ocean, forming carbonic acid shifting the pH to lower values and converts carbonate ions to bicarbonate ions. This makes it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the larval oysters to extract calcium carbonate (aragonite) from the water to make shells. This is the "severe" problem being alluded to. It's only severe for oyster growers at present.

    The other problem is the loss of the carbonate shells of oceanic, planktonic mollusks called pteropods, an extremely important component of the zooplankton eaten by small crustacea and fish. We know its happening but not how fast.

    When the canary in the coal mine dies, the miners don't instantly die, but they will if nothing is done. The timeline for ocean acidification is at yet unknown.

  13. Strix,
    You are not correct...the waters are NEVER acidic as you suggest. Ph drops when they pull fresh upwelled water, but that has always happened..cliff

  14. Cliff, I was interested in whether Stryx27 was right or not. A quick look at Wikipedia shows: Seawater pH is typically limited to a range between 7.5 and 8.4.[3]

    This reference is from the study Chester, Jickells, Roy, Tim (2012). Marine Geochemistry. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-118-34907-6.

    Where are you drawing your statement that it is "never* 8.2.?

    Additionally, I've personally talked to a scientist that is employed by Taylor, specifically to investigate the acidity issue. They seemed totally convinced that it is in fact the root cause of the lack of set of oyster spawn they and virtually every farm is experiencing on the Pacific NW coast. So while the State and EPA don't have *conclusive* proof, the companies are not waiting for that proof to act. Not that the EPA and State might eventually be proved right, or wrong.

  15. Cliff, I am not convinced that human-caused global warming is or will be a significant phenomenon. The prediction came to us from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has relied on several dozen models that have been invalidated by the "hiatus" now just about to enter its 19th year.

    The statistical methodology in the various IPCC reports is highly questionable, and it appears that a fairly significant amount of the data is either fudged through adjustments, or missing entirely.

    Until this year I was a mild believer in the global warming story. My first doubts came when the advocates for the AGW hypothesis began linking every severe weather event to climate change -- this or that hurricane or tornado outbreak, or this or that drought or flood.

    The last straw for me was when they invented the term "polar vortex" for winter arctic cold fronts. At that point, I really dove into the deep end of the pool. The closer you look, the more you realize that the main elements of the AGW hypothesis don't stand up to scrutiny.

    All that's left is the one fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. But we don't know the mechanism by which it acts on climate, nor do we know what levels matter.

    My mind isn't closed on the issue, but the series of alarmist predictions, and the intentional blurring of weather and climate by the proponents of the AGW hypothesis, help put me in the skeptical camp, as do their tactics for dealing with those who disagree. This has all the earmarks of a fad and a mania, with no small amount of religious and political fervor included.

  16. Alf,
    I don't understand your comment. I never said that the ph is never 8.2. I talked to Taylor folks as well and I got a very different "off the record" analysis..cliff

  17. Cliff, I should have said more acidic or less alkaline. The ocean surface waters show decreasing pH as they take up atmospheric CO2 and upwelled water, which already had a pH of ca. 7.8 50 years ago, now has a pH of 7.5 which means that aragonite is undersaturated making it much harder for oyster spat to develop shells.

    Although upwelling is relatively weak on the Washington coast, it happens often enough to affect oyster production.

  18. It is remarkable how willing BOTH sides of the global warming "debate" are to ignore the science. Thanks, Cliff, for showing us the data!

  19. Strx,
    Your numbers have not correct...the pH has not changed that much....only around .1 since 1850 for surface water, much less for upwelled water, which was exposed to the surface about 40-50 yr ago...cliff

  20. Scientists do not like hyperbole. Yet we live in a world full of it, so we have to remind children that "kill them" chants are really metaphorical. Just survey the sports headlines for many other gross examples. Journalistic standards fifty years ago, when I too practiced journalism, were very different. Murdoch and FOX are only the worst of it.

  21. Ted has led us to a clear picture of ocean acidification from UW scientists.
    1. Rising atmospheric CO2 changes ocean chemistry and negatively impacts shelled organisms.
    2. Pacific Northwest shellfish are sensitive to reduced calcium carbonate-saturation state within the current range of conditions.
    3. Natural and anthropogenic contributions are additive.
    4. Anthropogenic contributions to ocean acidification are detectable and have increased the frequency, intensity, and duration of harmful conditions.
    The relative magnitude of anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic contributions to rising CO2 in waters of the Pacific Northwest can be determined and have been reported in the scientific literature[xxix]. These studies reported that, of the total increase in CO2 from the pre-industrial in subsurface waters of Hood Canal, 24-49% was attributable to anthropogenic CO2[xxx], and that an average decline in aragonite saturation state ranges from 0.2[xxxi] to 0.5[xxxii] units in shelf waters of the Pacific Northwest. While anthropogenic CO2 is the largest single source of acidifying pollution to the Pacific Northwest waters[xxxiii], it does not currently dominate local variability at daily to seasonal timescales. However, it does add an amount of CO2 that can significantly worsen already-low Ωaragonite conditions for shelled organisms. This contribution essentially ‘makes a bad day worse.’

    5. Small changes in the environment can cause large responses among living organisms.

    With respect to low pH and aragonite saturation state, the events that drive the observed negative biological effects[xlii] are happening now in waters of the Pacific Northwest and are significantly exacerbated by anthropogenic CO2.

    6. Local species are affected.
    Pacific oysters in aquaculture facilities in Washington and Oregon have shown clear negative responses to low Ωaragonite [xliii]. Significantly, these negative responses are ameliorated when CO2 concentrations in hatchery water are artificially reduced. ...


  22. Fixed Carbon,
    The point by EPA and Washington DOE is that FOR SURFACE WATERS the impact of anthropogenic CO2 increases has been minimal. That is where the shellfish are. ..cliff

  23. It is interesting that blame for failing aquaculture goes to acidification and not the companies.
    The EPA notes we are not seeing impacts to "wild aquatic organisms." Naturally occurring larvae are doing fine, only the human-introduced oysters are struggling. This seems to bolster the evidence indicating the problem is the choice of farmed oyster, not acidification.
    As a corollary, in Washington's forests, companies planted trees that were merchantable but inappropriate for the location. We now recognize that mistake and are moving back to the traditional types of trees. We didn't blame climate change for the failure of non-native trees.
    Greens are quick to point that error out when it comes to forests but seem to ignore that same reality when there is an opportunity to justify their chosen climate policies.

  24. What do Scientists at the Univeristy of Washingtons College of the Environment think about ocean acidification. Here's a summary:

    It's pretty clear to me that Marine Scientists are quite concerned about the the effects of acidification on ocean life this century. Your post seems entirely dismissive of the issue.

  25. Bill Reiswig,
    Read the UW statement carefully and you will find that it does NOT contradict anything I am saying. There is NO evidence that acidification is affecting marine organisms in the surface waters of the Pacific NW. That is exactly what the EPA and State of Washington is saying.

    Ocean acidification research is good. We need to understand more what will happen. But the impacts so far in our waters is very small now....far less than natural variability..cliff

  26. Cliff:

    Keep in mind that the Ecology and EPA positions are not scientific papers; they are legal briefs defending not listing Washington and Oregon coastal waters as impaired water bodies for pH. The EPA brief notes that the decision point must be based on the record and science in the record when the impaired water bodies were proposed for listing by Ecology in 2010 and the acceptance of that listing by the EPA in 2012. Further, the listing has to be on pH and the standards for pH for listing water bodies do not fit the issue. Specifically, EPA guidance for ocean pH is 6.5 to 8.5. EPA has not published any guidance for aragonite saturation levels nor has Washington or Oregon adopted any levels for aragonite.

    The UW statement does state that the impacts are happening now and the impacts are significant and attribute those impacts to anthropogenic CO2 inputs. "With respect to low pH and aragonite saturation state, the events that drive the observed negative biological effects are happening now in waters of the Pacific Northwest and are significantly exacerbated by anthropogenic CO2".

    CO2 impacts are not yet the dominate driver of aragonite levels on a daily or seasonal basis, but aragonite levels have changed due to CO2 inputs enough that the frequency and magnitude of low aragonite events have increased in eastern Pacific coastal waters to a level of impact that the UW group referenced above described as significant.

    I understand your aggetation with the overstament of CO2 impacts but I would suggest you may want to add that when it comes to CO2 inputs in the ocean the we are heading into very dangerous uncharted waters. Give Zebe and Zachos a read:

    That critica

  27. Dan McShane,
    I understand what you are saying, but if you read the UW report carefully you will not find any substantiation of claims that shellfish are being impacted in the surface waters today. I have talked to the principals of the UW acidification center in person about this...there are no examples at all.

    That is the basic issue evidence of current harm in natural waters and the fact that anthropogenic impact on pH is very, very small compared natural variability. It is like saying the damage at Fukashima occurred do to sea level rise. Nothing would have been different there if the water levels had been a few inches less...cliff

  28. I did read the UW report carefully. It strikes me that the following statements are substantial claims:

    "With respect to low pH and aragonite saturation state, the events that drive the observed negative biological effects[xlii]are happening now in waters of the Pacific Northwest and are significantly exacerbated by anthropogenic CO2." - this sure sounds like the UW folks are saying there are significant impacts NOW due to CO2 impacts on aragonite coastal waters.

    "Other observations have shown that corrosive waters with Ωaragonite < 1 now reach the surface near shore, and found that the contribution from anthropogenic CO2 was necessary to cross this threshold[xxv]". This is in reference to the Feely paper. Some subsequent studies also support this view.

    It is probably unfortunate that pH has been used in media reports as it is a terrible proxy for aragonite levels. Though CO2 from the atmosphere contributes to a lowering of pH its impacts on aragonite saturation is much greater.

  29. Dan,
    But if you read their reports...or any others, there is no example given of damage to any shellfish in the surface waters of Puget Sound or other waters. None. My colleagues are essentially making general statements without any support. And aragonite and pH are very tightly tied together and are essentially telling the same story. This is all about relative important of human factors and natural variability... the later is HUGELY bigger than the former. And keep in mind that the upwelled waters--which are the whole issue here--were last in contact with the atmosphere 40-50 years ago, when CO2 levels were far lower....cliff

  30. Stepping in lightly:
    Based on 450,000 years of core samples we are definitely in a warming trend, with another ice age on the way.The consistency of the patterns tell most of the story. Is it true, that rising temperatures create more CO2, rather than the other way around? Lastly, I think it is much more likely that the poisoning of our waters will kill us before ramifications of heat and that is something that we can do something about if it was not drowned out by the concerns over cyclical warming patterns. I sincerely appreciate this blog and am very open to being set straight, if needed. - SanJuanIslandMan

  31. We have courts of law that do not look at things as "first do no harm" or "is this sustainable 7 generations out". Our "beyond a reasonable doubt" legal standards do not segue well with the "preponderance of evidence" of science. Particularly when such science needs to be done with the robust statistical analysis given by large sample sizes and carefully controlled conditions.

    Thus, many research papers are narrowly focused like this one, just published: "Shell Condition and Survival of Puget Sound Pteropods Are Impaired by Ocean Acidification Conditions " This was, of course done in a lab. Because it would be incredibly difficult to monitor pteropods in any controlled way in open waters.

    Cliff Mass, I heard you give an excellent presentation at a Whidbey Island Sound Waters event several years ago. In which you led a very able discussion with the audience regarding meteorologists, climate science modeling and the difficulties of discussing risk in different frames and on different time scales.

    Here, I think that an opportunity for a valuable discussion of the complex overlay of factors affecting Puget Sound had been missed. And, I fear that the headlines here, as shown by many comments on this thread, are turning this post into climate denialist clickbait.

    As one example of the sorts of discussions that need to be held beyond ocean acidification, shellfish growers are running intensive commercial farming operations. And much like their counterparts on shore these operations threaten to seriously damage ecological functions and may not be sustainable over the long term. Like other farmers, they are growing non local crops in fields with crippled overall ecological functioning. The threat of ocean acidification, while serious, should not be used as a mechanism for the avoidance of facing up to these other pressing issues as well. But on the flip side, this does not diminish the significance of ocean acidification.

    The EPA is not "taking on scaremongers". Nor are they saying that ocean acidification is not important. They are, as they did regarding fracking and drinking water in Pavilion, Wyoming, responding to the difficulties of establishing proof that will stand up in court given complex conditions. And given the effective means by which Congressional funding limitations have hamstrung research efforts. The chemical industry has, for years, taken on the EPA and managed to hold off enforcement.

    Given that I agree, like Chris Mass, that "Anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is a serious issue." I am very concerned that that this statement is buried so deeply within the post. An opportunity for much serious scientific discussion is being lost here.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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