Climate change and runoff threaten Oregon’s iconic coast

Recently, I was prompted to list the three things that matter to me more than anything in my life. My list? Family, the Pacific Northwest, and the ocean. I count my blessings on the first two. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful corner of the world and be close to my family. But as a lifelong advocate for the ocean, I’m alarmed at the rate of change being observed.

Record toxic algal blooms, starving sea lions, displaced marine mammals, an endangered oyster industry—these are just a few on a long list of scary warning signs. The ocean is demanding our attention. Oregon has implemented some innovative policies that are doing their share to protect our one-of-a-kind coastline; our marine reserve system and the beach bill come to mind. But serious human-caused threats to our iconic shores loom large. Two of the biggest ocean threats here in Oregon (where we don’t have offshore drilling, thankfully) are climate change and runoff.

Three studies were recently published that point to the seriousness of these threats.

A paper in the journal of Oceanography looked at indicators that predict ocean pH levels. The model predicted that ocean acidification (a side effect of climate change) will lead to conditions harmful to shell-building animals in the Pacific-Arctic region (this region shares migratory populations with the ocean offshore the Pacific Northwest) in 15 years. If the predictions are true, shells may begin to dissolve. The study is discussed in the Nature World News: “This will not only negatively affect shell-building organisms but also the fish that depend on these types of species for food.” The results of losing nearly an entire trophic level of a marine ecosystem? Let’s not find out by continuing to delay climate action.

A study published in Nature yesterday reported that when it comes to the carbon cycle, the ocean may have a much larger role than terrestrial ecosystems in the future. As our climate changes, carbon feedback from the ocean may exceed that of the land. Why care? The ocean is an important carbon sink. This study points at reduced carbon uptake by the ocean over time, which may impact the rate of climate change.

The third study looks at coastal sediment—caused by runoff from development and agriculture—clogging the gills of young fish. Runoff and stormwater washes pollution, contaminants and sediment into our waterways and coastlines—oil, pesticides, herbicides, hazardous materials, eroded soil and more. Although this study looked at clownfish, the implications are global. This worries me because Oregon is a hotbed for rockfish diversity. I would hate to see any further collapse of our fishing industries or a loss of iconic northwest species. Using green development and sustainable agriculture practices can mitigate the threat of polluting runoff for Oregon.

Bottom line? Oregon must act on climate and continue to adopt practices that protect clean water. It’s not just iconic species being threatened by inaction—jobs, communities and a way of life are also at risk. Learn more about the impact of OEC’s programs in protecting our coasts and how you can get involved: climate policy, greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural and stormwater runoff.

Michelle McGrath, OEC

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