Climate change is 'biggest stress' on ocean, senator says

Rob Dunbar

Experts on marine science, policy and law came together on Friday at the Stanford Law School for a symposium on managing ocean ecosystems in an uncertain future of climate change. The daylong panel discussion was hosted by the Stanford Journal of Law, Science and Policy.

"The event was an amazing cross-section of state agencies, academic institutions, government and students," said Meg Caldwell, a senior lecturer at the Law School and at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment. Caldwell moderated a panel on protecting marine species.

"This was real-time education for policymakers," added Caldwell, who also serves as director of the Center for Ocean Solutions, a collaboration of Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Several panelists described how global warming associated with climate change has already altered marine ecosystems. Rising sea temperatures have contributed to the die-off of 80 percent of corals in the Caribbean, said Brian Helmuth, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina. "The rate of temperature change really matters," he said. "When we increase temperatures above a certain threshold, animals' enzymes don't work and they can't survive."

A number of speakers predicted that climate change will lead to even higher temperatures, as well as rising sea levels, ocean acidification and changes in local and global circulation patterns. And while global warming affects both land and marine organisms, the changes are happening much faster in marine ecosystems, they said. "Nearly half of the species of fish we studied in Europe moved northward at a rate of 1.4 miles [2.2 kilometers] per year," said John Reynolds, professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University. "That's a lot faster than most terrestrial counterparts."

Marine protected areas

Several panelists stressed the need for managers to anticipate how marine organisms will respond to climate change and manage accordingly. "We must consider how species will adapt and implement reserves that buffer for change and uncertainty," said Mark Carr, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

As an example, Carr pointed to marine protected areas (MPAs), coastal reserves that are usually closed to fishing and other exploitive activities. "MPAs and their networks should encompass the changes we are going to see and accommodate movement of species latitudinally and with depth," he said.

"I want to get beyond whining about climate," said Phil Levin, a program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in Seattle. "Knowledge gives us the power to act now."

As productivity in the ocean decreases, fisheries will suffer, Levin added, noting that if we overfish now, many species will not recover. "If we think about what's going to happen with the fish, we can do the right thing and avoid future screwups," he said.

Fisheries face other problems besides climate change, said Mike Sutton, vice president and director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "In California, our fisheries have plummeted by 50 to 70 percent in landings, weight and value," he said.

Sutton emphasized the importance of setting up reserves to bolster the resiliency of marine ecosystems and investing in more environmentally sustainable aquaculture. He also stressed the need for ecosystem-based management and promoting comprehensive governance of the oceans. "We need to start talking intelligently with our leaders about all this," Sutton said. "We have to stop fighting over the few scraps that are left and preserve the resources we do have."

Positive change

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., an active sailor and diver who is married to a marine scientist, delivered the keynote address. Whitehouse spoke passionately about the oceans and the hope that positive change will come under the Obama administration.

"We are seeing screaming signs of distress from this once thought of all-powerful ocean, and the biggest stress on the ocean right now is climate change," Whitehouse said. "It's a very small group of us that are actually animated about fighting on this subject, but we are going to get a lot further on climate change once the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] moves forward under new management."

According to several panelists, part of the solution to climate change is to invest more in renewable energy, including new technologies based in the marine environment. Ocean waves, tidal currents and marine wind hold vast amounts of untapped power, enough to provide 50 percent of U.S. energy needs, said Roger Bedard, ocean energy leader of the Electric Power Research Institute. "We live in a global society," he said. "We need to investigate adding ocean energy to our portfolio."

The symposium concluded with a question-and-answer session, prompting an open discussion between panelists and audience. "The beauty of this event is it really epitomizes one of the chief missions of the Center for Ocean Solutions—to increase the role of science in developing policy," Caldwell said. "Everyone was learning together and developing new ideas and approaches."

The symposium was sponsored by the Center for Ocean Solutions, the Woods Institute's Mel Lane Student Program, Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station and Student Collaborations for Ocean Research and Education (SCORE). The proceedings will be published in the Stanford Journal of Law, Science and Policy, and a video will be available online.

Cassandra Brooks is a science-writing intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.