The Science-Policy Intersect: Ocean Acidification and Marine Debris

Climate change-driven shifts in ocean conditions and growing coastal populations are two of the many factors raising uncertainty in coastal and marine resource management.  Fortunately, there is a growing understanding of the opportunity to improve policies and decisions on these issues by drawing on and infusing scientific data into policy and management decisions in order to promote healthy coastal economies and ecosystems. My graduate degree research focused on this intersection between science and policy and how to imbue scientific data into the policy process. In my past few months with the Governor’s Natural Resources Office I have seen two regionally focused efforts in the eastern Pacific Ocean that speak directly to this interface.

The first of these is the establishment of a West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel (OAH Panel). The OAH Panel, consisting of 20 esteemed scientists representing California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, was tasked with advancing decision makers’ understanding of drivers and impacts of ocean acidification and hypoxia. Ocean acidification poses a particular threat to the west coastal waters of the United States and Canada, where naturally upwelling waters bring deep water with a low pH to the surface, where it mixes with low pH waters caused by atmospheric deposition of carbon dioxide.  Successive upwelling events also increase the occurrence of seasonally hypoxic (low oxygen) areas of the ocean. Acknowledging the specific threat that ocean acidification and hypoxia bring to the west coast, the OAH Panel is intended to identify the research and monitoring needed to answer practical questions faced by policy makers and managers about ocean acidification and hypoxia. While biological impacts have been seen from ocean acidification and hypoxia, there are still many questions to answer for the purpose of decision making. On my very first day on the job, I was fortunate to attend a meeting between Oregon natural resource agency managers and Oregon-based OAH Panel scientists convened to set an agenda for ways to advance science-informed decision making in Oregon waters. They agreed to work collaboratively to develop accurate and accessible outreach materials to inform policy makers and the public, establish ongoing information sharing and coordination forums on OAH, and identify ways to ensure the science products being developed by the OAH Panel are used by decision makers.

The second effort endeavoring to infuse scientific data into policy and management practices in the eastern Pacific Ocean is the West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP).  The WCODP is a project of the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health that provides access to ocean and coastal data to inform regional resource management, policy development, and ocean planning. I was able to help at the WCODP’s annual Network meeting in early November to unveil a new feature of the Portal that creates a geographic visual of data, specifically data relating to marine debris. This new feature, the Data Viewer, provides coastal decision makers with a tool to track marine debris and help prioritize clean ups and advocate for policies to reduce the impact of trash on our beaches. As the WCODP charts its strategic plan moving forward, it seeks to continue to be a rich data resource and tool to visualize and map that information, so that ocean and coastal managers can make sound decisions to improve ocean health.

Both of these efforts have established a significant opportunity to sustain and continue to build cross-sector cooperation between decision making and scientific sectors on the west coast. The state is thus poised to more efficiently and effectively protect and preserve the ocean’s critical natural resources. Both the scientific community and decision making community are working to improve ocean health.  Combining forces is helping scientists ask the questions managers need to answer to understand how ecosystem services that people value will be affected, and what steps people might take to try to mitigate and adapt to those changes on the west coast now and in the future.


And so it begins…

As a new Oregon Sea Grant Fellow, I thought an introduction to myself should start this blog. I am a recent graduate of the Masters of Environmental Management program in the Department of Environmental Management at Portland State University in Portland, OR. My graduate research focused on evidence-based decision making in coastal and marine management and policy in the Pacific Northwest. At a high level, this work tested a 2 phase methodology for bridging the gap between academic research and policy and management practice: The 1st phase included an interviewing process to gather primary qualitative data and determine scientific data needs of ocean relevant decision makers. In the 2nd phase, I conducted a workshop to bring together academic scientists and decision makers to disseminate phase 1 findings and begin to foster the development, communication, and use of policy relevant research. I have resolved to continue focusing on understanding how best to bring scientific knowledge into policy action through my career in coastal and marine policy creation and management implementation.
My graduate research was funded by the Oregon Sea Grant Robert E. Malouf Marine Studies Scholarship, and I feel very fortunate to continue to work with Oregon Sea Grant as well as other Sea Grant scholars over the next year. I anticipate gaining an incredible wealth of knowledge over the next year working in the Oregon Governor’s Natural Recourses Office. As a neophyte walking around this Office, I often find myself with eyes open wide and full of excitement. Oregon Sea Grant has provided me this incredibly rare opportunity to be placed in the heart of ocean and coastal policy in such a critical coastal state, and I intend to take advantage of every moment.
In this role, I will support Oregon’s engagement in carrying out WCGA priorities related to climate change, regional ocean data, marine debris, and ocean acidification, as well as WCGA initiatives to foster collaboration with tribes, local governments, and the federal government coordinating and improving ocean management and health in Oregon and along the West Coast. I welcome you to follow me along this journey over the next year!

The Real Cost of Aquatic Invaders

I was interested to read recently that ballast water standards adopted by New York to prevent the spread of invasive species have prompted concern among several Great Lakes Governors, who say that the regulations will halt shipping in the St. Lawrence Seaway and jeopardize thousands of jobs. The new standards, which are more stringent than the Phase One standards proposed by the United States Coast Guard, require vessels transiting through New York waters to install ballast water treatment systems in order to protect the fragile ecosystems in New York and in the Great Lakes.  In 2009, the right of NY to establish standards via the Clean Water Act process was upheld in a New York Court of Appeals suite brought forth by the shipping industry.

The new standards have far reaching effects as all ships entering the Great Lakes need to pass through NY waters and must therefore install the new treatment technologies to “inactivate” biological organisms and pathogens. Systems inactivate organisms using a variety of methods including filtration, UV irradiation, deoxygenation, electrolysis, ultrasound, and something ominously called chemical biocide. Unfortunately, due to a relatively small number of “real world” tests of system performance in a variety of environmental and vessel conditions, there remains a high level of uncertainty with regard to treatment effectiveness.

Ships emptying ballast water at the Port of Oakland . CREDIT: Monaca Noble, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Examples of aquatic invasive species presently found on the West Coast include the European green crab (Carcinus maenas), Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis), zebra mussels (genus  Dreissena), cordgrasses (genus Spartina), and  Undaria pinnatifida. West Coast states have undertaken multimillion dollar projects to control or eradicate these aquatic invasive species.It is widely recognized that aquatic invasive species wreak havoc on our natural systems and infrastructure. By out competing native plants and animals, modifying habitat, and disrupting food webs, their effects can be seen in coastal ecosystems worldwide. What is also known is that invasive species cost the US billions of dollars annually in damage to coastal infrastructure, eradication and control efforts, and disruption to ecosystem services.

The West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health (WCGA) recognized the threat of invasive species to the ecological, social, public health, and economic integrity of the region’s marine resources. The WCGA action plan acknowledged the great work already underway in the region on ballast water through the Pacific Ballast Water Group which acts as a forum for states to coordinate their ballast water policies. On the West Coast, California has had an effective ballast water management program in place since 2000 which has focused on performance standards as well as ballast water exchange. It has served as a model for the West Coast and, unlike the fears raised by the Great Lakes, has not resulted in decreased port activity.

In addition, the WCGA formed the Spartina Eradication Action Coordination Team focused on eradicating and preventing the spread of this invasive cordgrass. While not typically spread through ballast water, non-native Spartina dominates newly restored tidal marshes, changes the hydrology of estuaries by modification of tidal creeks and navigational channels, displaces thousands of acres of shorebird habitat, drastically reduces biodiversity, and decreases available intertidal habitat for commercial shellfish production.

I wanted to talk to someone who knows whether ballast water treatment standards will be effective on the West Coast to preventing the spread of invasive species. Mark Sytsma, the Director of the Center for Lakes and Reservoirs at Portland State University and former co-chair of the Spartina Eradication Action Coordination Team, was gracious enough to answer some of my questions.

Do you think the NY ballast water standards are the answer to preventing the spread and introduction of invasive species in NY and on the Great Lakes?

Mark: Standards are not the only answer to preventing new introductions, [ballast water] treatment is. Standards are [only] a way to direct and evaluate the treatment effectiveness. Unfortunately, no one knows what discharge standards are protective for our water resources. How many new introductions are acceptable? At this point, we don’t know the answer to that.

Are many of the invasive species on the West Coast introduced through ballast water?

Mark: Yes. Look at the 2004 Lower Columbia River Aquatic Non-indigenous Species report on our website about introductions to the Columbia. There is similar literature on SF Bay. It’s hard to imagine how some species could have gotten to the West Coast from Asia, except by hitchhiking in a ballast water tank.

Would ballast water treatment work on the West Coast?

Mark: I think everyone thinks that treatment is the answer. The question is how to treat [ballast water] quickly and effectively. There are a number of systems available and the California State Lands Commission has a report that describes the effectiveness and status of [treatment] systems.

What efforts has the Spartina ACT done to prevent the re-introduction of Spartina?

Mark: The funding that the WCGA provided for the Spartina action plan last year was used to develop environmental documents for Spartina treatment in Humboldt Bay and to do control of S. patens in Siuslaw estuary in Oregon. Both of these could be considered prevention, because infestations from these two sites threatens to spread to other areas on the West Coast. Certainly, those of us in Oregon see the Humboldt work as critical to preventing spread of Spartina to Oregon.

Thanks to Mark I was able to gain some insight from one of the experts on the West Coast. For me the questions raised by the Great Lakes Governors highlight the perceived tension between economic growth and ecological preservation. However, as we have seen in examples from the West Coast and around the world, failing to prevent and/or control aquatic invasive species is costly to infrastructure, jobs, and the environment. It is an investment in the future health of our economy and oceans that I think is worth making.

Japanese Tsunami – The Global Aftermath

The 9.0 earthquake centered 80 miles off of the Japanese coast was felt by the whole world, not physically, necessarily, but through our kinship as a global community. We were rattled to see such devastation on our computer and television screens, and West Coasters went to the shorelines to watch the ocean ebb and surge as the tsunami reached our coast. For some port towns, it came with fury, jostling boats and tearing up harbors, causing one fatality and millions in damage. For others towns, like Port Orford, OR, it was captivating to see tides in fast-forward, but it was an unsettling reminder that the Cascadia fault line that stretches from northern Vancouver Island to northern California is about 80 years overdue. Next time, it might be all of us.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

Today, almost six months after the Honshu quake, Japan is still reeling. The world has offered its hand in humanitarian efforts, as well as in scientific expertise for the subsequent nuclear crisis. People struggle to rebuild and survive. Food, water and electricity remain in short supply.

What became abundant? Debris. Of all shapes and sizes, from household items, to cars, to whole buildings. When the water receded, anything suspended went along with it back into the Pacific Ocean. This means, in no uncertain terms, that remnants of Japan are headed our way.

 NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit:, 8/31/2011)

NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit:, 8/31/2011)

This brings one question to mind, and that’s “Are we ready?” First, are we ready to act when, or if, this massive amount of debris hits our coastline? Do we have any sense of the magnitude or high-probability areas? Could any of that debris be radioactive?

Most scientists think we have some time before any debris hits. However, there is no clear answer how the North Pacific Gyre will speed up or slow down that movement. In the time it takes to cross the big blue, and the mismatched timing of the Fukushima incident with the recession of the water, NOAA and others consider it “highly unlikely” that Hawaii or the West Coast will have to deal with radioactivity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for monitoring radioactivity.

 Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. The first bits of debris are expected in a year. (Credit:, 8/31/2011)

Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. (Credit:, 8/31/2011)

The general consensus is that most of the debris will reach the West Coast in about two years, with debris protruding from the water (e.g. fishing vessels) likely to turn up first because of exposure to the prevailing winds. Other debris may remain in the depths of the Pacific never to be seen by most of us again. To date, I’ve really enjoyed picking up beach treasures from Japan (glass floats and interesting bottles), but I’m not sure I’d be so thrilled coming across remnants of cars or houses.

While some of us have the opportunity to go to Japan and help in the rebuilding efforts, others can do the world a favor by taking part in the clean up on this side of the Pacific.  Whether this means signing up for the SOLV Beach clean up every year, participating in events like the California Coastal Cleanup Day and Washington Coast Cleanup, or just bringing garbage bags with you to the beach, we can all do something.

NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: 8/31/2011) NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: 8/31/2011)

West Coast-wide organizations, such as the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health (WCGA), addressed marine debris in the 2008 Action Plan. Action 1.4 notes that the three states will establish baseline estimates of marine debris off the West Coast, and support policies to meet reduction goals through recycling, trash maintenance, and litter laws. Members of the Marine Debris Action Coordination Team and the forming Marine Debris Alliance, with folks at EPA Region 9, the U.S. Coast Guard and others, are on regular calls trying to track this debris plume and figure out the “when, where, and how much.” There is a lot of uncertainty, but also a lot going into getting prepared. This includes a NOAA initiative called “Ships of Opportunity” program, which hires non-research vessels traveling in that direction to search for the head of the debris plume. The thought is if they can deploy buoy sensors at the head of the plume, scientists will be able to track the progress of the debris to the West Coast. Who knows? This may be another happenstance opportunity to learn more about Pacific Ocean currents.

Will we be ready when it’s our shoreline that’s quaking? I know there are a lot of communities starting to think along the lines of tsunami preparedness, but what about our families and friends? I have no disaster plan. I have no kit. Do you?  Granted, not everyone is in imminent danger of a tsunami, but the damage from an earthquake means long-term threats for everyone’s way of life. I’m not advocating that everyone run to the store for their dehydrated food kit, or build a survival shelter in their backyard, but I know that I could benefit from knowing a little more and taking some steps to prepare.

I guess the bottom line for me is, let’s learn from this. Let’s keep our Pacific neighbors in our hearts and minds. Let’s get ready, in every way possible, to prepare for the aftermath of the damage already done, and prepare for events to come. I think we can all agree that it’s only a matter of time.

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit:; 8/31/2011)

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit:; 8/31/2011)

Rendezvous in the Emerald City: Invigorating the Agreement

It always amazes me how much can be accomplished by people that have never met face-to-face. Dedicated individuals from Oregon, Washington, and California involved with the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health have been making strides for this regional ocean partnership via conference calls and email for the better part of 5 years. This past June, for the first time in 3 years, the WCGA executive committee (Excomm) members and the leads for the WCGA’s Action Coordination Teams (ACT) all met in the flesh to take the pulse of the WCGA and discuss the future of regional ocean governance. For me, a WCGA Sea Grant fellow just 3 months into my 2 year stint, greeting attendees felt like a human game of Memory; matching faces to voices that I’d only known through phone calls.

A little background on the WCGA: The WCGA is the regional ocean partnership for the West Coast, formed on September 18, 2006 by the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington. Upon signing, then Governors Schwarzenegger, Gregoire, and Kulongoski launched a new, proactive regional collaboration to protect and manage the ocean and coastal resources along the entire West Coast, as called for in the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission. The WCGA seeks to advance the goals of:

  • Clean coastal waters and beaches
  • Healthy ocean and coastal habitats
  • Effective ecosystem-based management
  • Reduced impacts of offshore development
  • Increased ocean awareness and literacy among the region’s citizens
  • Expanded ocean and coastal scientific information, research, and monitoring
  • Sustainable economic development of coastal communities

A seascape of Mill Rocks with Humbug Mountain in the distance (Photo: Stoike)

This meeting allowed the WCGA to look ahead into FY ’12, review the 2008 Action Plan, and build a strategy for near term actions. Of particular interest to me was the WCGA’s sincere commitment to improving communication with the Action Coordination Teams; a commitment validated by this face-to-face interaction between ExComm and ACTs. From my perspective, these ten teams, designed to put the Action Plan into…well, action, serve a critical role in the success of the WCGA as a whole. Their expertise and commitment breathe life and valuable perspective into the WCGA and give it the legs to run.

A good portion of the meeting was dedicated to discussing how the WCGA would implement coastal and marine spatial planning, a significant priority of the federal government outlined in the National Ocean Policy Objective 2 (comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning and management in the United States). In order to inform this discussion, the WCGA invited Micah McCarty, a Tribal Council Member from Makah Tribal Nation, and Jacque Hostler, Chief Executive Officer of the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, to share their perspectives with state and federal representatives as well as ACT members. Both Micah and Jacque are highly engaged on the National level as members of the National Ocean Council’s Governance Coordinating Committee. Donald McIsaac, Executive Director, and Dorothy Lowman, Executive Specialist from the Pacific Fishery Management Council attended as guests and shared the Council’s views on the proposed CMSP regional planning bodies (RPB). As the National Ocean Council moves forward with CMSP, the WCGA agreed to take some proactive steps in developing a regional data portal for the West Coast, similar to the data portal created in the Northeast. They came up with some recommendations regarding CMSP that I believe are important to acknowledge. The WCGA will:

    • Support CMSP as a tool to protect and manage coastal and ocean resources;
    • Collaborate with all federal agencies, tribes, and affected groups and stakeholders to address West Coast ocean and coastal health issues;
    • Maintain a strong role in assisting the federal government to create and execute the West Coast Regional Planning Body (RPB)
    • Acknowledge that ACTs were formed to focus on implementing policy changes and best management practices, and that their capacity is limited to staff RPB and CMSP planning and information gathering processes.

A sustainable coastal community includes vibrant working waterfronts and access to the resource (Photo: Stoike)

The Executive Committee made a series of recommendations to share with its respective governor’s offices in California, Oregon, and Washington. These include reaffirming the current structure of the WCGA— it’s currently a governors’ partnership, with invited federal agencies, and new administrations in CA and OR make this a logical and necessary action. The WCGA committed to engaging and coordinating with interested tribal governments. Finally, the current financial climate made it clear that streamlining and prioritizing the 2008 WCGA Action Plan to better align actions with existing and potential resources will help ensure the WCGA is doing the best it can to meet its goals.

These new efforts will be part of the update to their 2008 Action Plan scheduled for release in 2013.

President Barack Obama is updated on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, during a meeting in the tarmac field house at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, La., June 4, 2010. (Photo: Pete Souz)