We're killing the oceans

By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 18, 2009

"It's bordering on crisis," Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse tells the Phoenix. "You can look to the Arctic north and find the traditional sea ice melting away. You can look to the tropical south and see coral dying by the acre. You can look to the temperate areas in between and see fisheries that have lasted for centuries in dire distress."

Whitehouse is one of the rare politicians who knows the meaning of the word "pelagic." (If you're wondering, it's "of or pertaining to the open seas.") And unlike most of his colleagues, Whitehouse speaks from experience. He's a long-time diver, and his wife is a marine scientist. That's afforded him a first-hand look at some worrisome changes in the region's waters.

"Not too long ago," he explains, "my wife and I were diving in Narragansett Bay for her experiments on winter flounder." (Winter flounder was long the dominant fishery there, but in recent decades the waters have gotten warmer.) "I think it's four degrees warmer, mean winter temperature, than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and the result has been that the winter flounder population has crashed. Now fishermen are catching more scup than winter flounder, which is a less desirable and less remunerative harvest for them. So they're seeing a very different bay than their fathers did."

Another potential disaster — "one of the biggest problems that's not yet on other people's radar," says Skerry — is ocean acidification. That's when an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, soaked up by the ocean, leads to a decrease in the water's pH level, stripping the sea of carbonate ions, which are crucial for calcification.

The result, says Skerry, is that it "wipes out things like coral reefs — anything with a calcium structure, including shellfish and these little mollusks that are consumed by a lot of other animals."

"If you wipe them out, the whole floor of the oceanic food chain collapses," says Whitehouse. "And we don't know what happens after that."

Nor do we want to. "The idea of ocean acidification is fairly new and the science is fairly young," says Annala. "Certainly, it's affecting warm-water areas much more quickly than cold-water areas, like the Gulf of Maine. But its impact on areas of coral reef could be quite staggering."

Could he ever see it adversely affecting local crustaceans, like lobsters and mussels — and potentially impacting the region's shellfish-aquaculture industry? "I think it's a medium- to long-term issue that bears investigation."

Meanwhile, Annala is noticing other changes. "The Gulf of Maine receives a lot of water from the Labrador Current system," he says, "and depending on the strength of the Gulf Stream, varying amounts of this colder Labrador Current water is entrained into the gulf. That's becoming fresher and cooler as the Greenland ice cap melts."

Rothschild says that that "puddle of fresh water" floating atop the briny Atlantic "prevents the typical overturn of nutrients going up and down and recycling to make phytoplankton and zooplankton. If this is a recurring phenomena, it's going to change the productivity of the northwest Atlantic in ways that we don't know yet."

I ask Libby whether, from the stern of his groundfishing boat, he's noticed any strange changes that might be attributed to global warming. "Not being a scientist, I don't know," he jokes. "It's not very hot out there right now."

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