International collaboration is vital for understanding and adapting to ocean acidification

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For those who make their living farming oysters in the states of Washington and Oregon, the widespread mortality of larvae at several hatcheries between 2005 and 2009 was alarming and potentially devastating. After intense scientific scrutiny and collaboration among industry, government, and academic scientists, the culprit was eventually identified: corrosive seawater. The upwelling of carbon dioxide-enriched water along the U.S. west coast was making it hard for oyster larvae to build their shells. To date, approximately one quarter of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions has dissolved into the ocean, and this phenomenon—called ocean acidification (OA)—has been shown to negatively impact a range of shellfish and marine life, potentially threatening food security and ocean health. Those impacted oyster farmers in Washington and Oregon were able to adapt to these OA challenges by collaborating with scientists to monitor and adjust water quality in the hatcheries. For individuals, industries, and countries around the world, this type of collaboration will be essential to better understand and adapt to the threat that OA poses to our communities.

Because of the interconnectedness of our ocean and atmosphere, OA is a global phenomenon that requires global attention. Several United Nations (UN) entities, processes, and agreements—including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Environment Program (UNEP), the UN Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO)—now identify OA as a key issue that should be addressed by member countries. While OA and climate change are both driven by carbon dioxide emissions, specific actions for monitoring OA and its impacts on marine life have not yet been formalized in many of the above. Similarly, OA had only been informally considered alongside climate change impacts, such as warming, when setting CO2 emission targets.

However, the UN has recently become actively engaged in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which were adopted in a 2015 UN resolution. One of these goals focuses on sustainability in the marine environment, and has a specific target (14.3) to “minimize and address the impacts of OA, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels.” At the June 2017 UN Ocean Conference, delegates converged to make voluntary commitments to achieve the SDGs, including target 14.3. But while the international ocean acidification community is working hard to expand scientific capacity around the globe, further progress is still needed. Improvement is required in three key areas: (1) OA monitoring capabilities, (2) targeted research on commercially and ecologically valuable species, and (3) vulnerability assessments to inform mitigation and adaptation measures. International cooperation and action is essential to achieving these objectives.

Collaboration among scientists and countries will help fill the large gaps in global OA observing capacity. There is still a paucity of measurements for large swathes of coastal and open ocean. Sparsely populated regions such as the Southern Ocean and resource-poor countries with limited scientific equipment or training typically have the fewest monitoring resources deployed. Particularly striking is the absence of monitoring assets around the African continent, despite the high number of coastal countries and their socioeconomic reliance on marine resources.

There has already been some movement toward building international collaborations. Multiple regional bodies have been established to share findings and pool resources, such as the nascent Ocean Acidification-Africa network. These networks help bring together stakeholders including scientists, aquaculturists, and resource managers to pool knowledge and resources.

At the global level, the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) was launched in 2013 to increase global monitoring coverage, understand how OA will affect marine ecosystems, and provide the data required for robust OA modelling. At present, its membership consists of over 350 scientists from 67 countries. In addition to establishing and coordinating regional monitoring networks, GOA-ON and its various partners promote and support capacity-building workshops and ocean chemistry training sessions around the world. Recent workshops have been held in Senegal, South Africa, and Thailand, and in October 2017 a workshop in Fiji will focus on capacity building for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Furthermore, GOA-ON has recently introduced the Pier2Peer mentorship program, in which senior scientist mentors are paired with students and early-career researchers to share knowledge and expertise. These mentorships have gone on to form the foundation for international collaborations.

Research on the effects of OA on ecologically and commercially valuable marine life is required to understand its potential impacts. Individual animals, populations, and species may vary in their response when exposed to multiple stressors, such as nutrient limitation and temperature variation, in combination with OA conditions. Given this variability, targeted experiments that investigate how commercially and ecologically important species respond to OA still need to be conducted at the local level.

Capacity building efforts can help provide training, equipment, and collaborations necessary to conduct these studies; however, buy-in from local governments and other potential funders will still be required. In general, it is critical that scientists make the case for how their proposed research serves a societal need. In the case of OA, scientists could frame their research in the context of how ocean chemistry changes might impact locally important species or ecosystems and the human communities that rely on these resources, socially and economically.

Quantifying socioeconomic vulnerability to OA will help determine where to prioritize adaptation and mitigation resources. Required inputs include ocean chemistry data and predictions, knowledge of the biological response of commercially important species, and an assessment of the resultant impacts on food security, jobs, and the economy. Increasing the geographic coverage of ocean chemistry monitoring would provide a scientific foundation for such vulnerability assessments and would improve scientists’ ability to predict future OA levels and their effects. Identifying the culturally and economically relevant species and their potential vulnerability to OA is also important. In the state of Washington, it was the major risk that OA posed to the shellfish industry that spurred action, including the formation of a Blue Ribbon panel and a focus on mitigation and adaptation efforts. One recent targeted vulnerability assessment identified regions in Alaska that could be particularly vulnerable to OA because of their reliance on Alaskan shellfish and finfish, coupled with overall lower incomes and limited employment alternatives. Such assessments can both help inform policy decisions and identify information gaps.

International action and collaboration will strengthen our ability to combat the negative effects of ocean acidification, now and in the future. Scientific collaboration is one way to strengthen the international linkages that are needed to manage and adapt to these global-scale challenges.

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Maxwell B. Kaplan is a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow of the Ocean Acidification Program at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland. Elizabeth B. Jewett is the Director of the Ocean Acidification Program at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bronte Tilbrook is the Principal Scientist at the CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia.

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