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Our view: Unified action necessary to preserve ocean life

It’s in our paramount economic and physical interests to get a handle on whatever is turning part of the ocean into a wasteland

Published on October 12, 2017 7:20AM

Dead zones in the Pacific Ocean trouble researchers.

AP Photo/Jeff Barnard

Dead zones in the Pacific Ocean trouble researchers.

It’s troubling to learn “a suffocating ribbon of low oxygen seawater over the continental shelf” expanded northward this summer to impact the North Coast and even Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Reported this week by Tom Banse of Northwest News Network, dead zones began affecting Oregon’s southern near-shore waters around 2000 — representing an acute change from marine oxygen levels in the previous half century. Since 2000, patches of the state’s southern continental shelf resemble a watery desert, nothing but dead things littering the bottom. It is a vision of what it would be like if the air we breathe developed invisible pockets devoid of life-giving oxygen, inexorably drifting through towns and countryside killing everything in their path.

Researchers with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary found “literally no oxygen” at one site. Off the Quinault Indian Reservation, there were “dead fish and shellfish at various locations and times beginning near the end of July and extending through most of August.”

Technically called hypoxia, the lack of oxygen in seawater is, so far, still a localized and patchy problem. But it’s easy to see how it can become an apocalypse for sea life and for coastal economies dependent on crabbing and fishing.

Fish are highly mobile and sometimes can move away from unfavorable conditions. It might be this year’s mediocre salmon runs in our area and stellar returns in Alaska partly reflect fish “voting with their fins” and shifting northward. Dungeness crab, shellfish and other invertebrates don’t have as much ability to flee — though Banse reports that this year “observers noted crabs leaving the ocean to seek more oxygenated waters in coastal estuaries and bays.”

It’s significant that the Oregon Legislature finds all this sufficiently troubling to warrant creation of a new high-level council to examine what can be done about the problem. The causes of hypoxia are likely to be complex and overlapping various government jurisdictions, but it’s possible to imagine that state-level action could be beneficial in curbing runoff of excess fertilizer and other pollutants into the ocean. Such chemicals are known to impact marine life. The state also can play a meaningful role in monitoring and documenting offshore damage, building a case for broader action.

In other respects, dead zones along the edge of the northeast Pacific Ocean may result from much larger problems than any one state can address. Oregon State University researcher Francis Chan pins the problem in part on disrupted ocean circulation patterns and ocean warming. It took a September storm to break up this summer’s low-oxygen zones, an intervention no state can hope to influence.

Like citizens of a Dust Bowl town hiring a biplane to seed reluctant rainclouds, on its own Oregon isn’t likely to make much difference.

More unified action certainly will be required. For the immediate future, that must consist of cooperative agreements between the West Coast states. Governors of the three mainland Pacific states already have taken some steps to work in concert on climate issues, in part because of an acknowledgment that they are increasingly impacting the ocean. The three states will need to do more, reaching out to British Columbia, Alaska and perhaps even across the ocean to Asia in hopes of forging stronger scientific and resource-management alliances.

Little help can be expected from the feckless Trump administration, which has set about neutering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and sabotaging international efforts to protect the planet on which we rely. In the face of overwhelming evidence, current federal leaders deny there is a problem. This week’s U.S. Department of the Interior announcement of an end to the “war on coal” is in effect a declaration of war on coastal communities that rely on cold and productive ocean water.

Ultimately, all Americans of every political shade will understand it’s in our paramount economic and physical interests to get a handle on whatever is turning part of the ocean into a wasteland. Until then, coastal citizens must defend our own interests in every way we can.


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