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.

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Coming Full-Circle with the West Coast Ocean Observing Systems

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One of the perks of working in the offices of SCCOOS and CDIP was getting out on the water to help with CDIP wave buoy deployments.

When I was accepted to the California Sea Grant State Fellowship program last November, I couldn’t keep the names of my mentor organizations straight. I knew that I’d be working with four agencies (possibly more!) along the West Coast to analyze oceanographic data in the context of marine debris and ocean acidification. The job sounded fabulous, but I didn’t really have any idea whom I’d be working for.

Twelve months later, I can rattle off the names of my host agencies in one confident breath (try saying ‘Ocean Observing System’ three times fast, with several geographic and governmental qualifiers thrown in, and you get the idea). Because my position is based at the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (that’s SCCOOS) in beautiful La Jolla, CA, I have been able to observe many of the day-to-day workings of the oceanographic data collection that SCCOOS employs. SCCOOS is well-known for the array of real-time ocean observing platforms that it has created and maintains. My lunch break ocean views are framed by a Coastal Observing Research and Development Center (CORDC) high-frequency radar (HFR) station that measures real-time surface currents, and the door of my office is marked by a yellow Waverider buoy used by the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) to monitor wave conditions. Both the HFR surface currents and the CDIP wave and sea surface temperature datasets have formed core components of my product development. Best of all, when I have a question, I can simply walk next door to check in with the people who collect the data.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to fully understand the whole process of data collection and manipulation.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to learn about the whole process of data collection and quality control, in addition to using the data to create time-averaged oceanographic products.

A large part of my fellowship involves working with data and agencies outside of Southern California. While the West Coast OOS Regional Associations (RAs) are all housed under the national Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) network, and share data across geographic boundaries, each RA has its own focus within coastal oceanography and ocean health monitoring. My fellowship has helped me explore these nuances, giving me a better understanding of the variety of coastal environments and marine-related issues around the U.S.

One of the Fellowship side projects that I developed this summer was plotting sea surface temperature (SST) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

One of my Fellowship side projects has been to plot sea surface temperature (SST, above) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

This spring, I had the opportunity to visit another of my host OOSs, the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS), along with several of their partner organizations. CeNCOOS is based at the edge of the world-renowned Monterey Bay and Monterey Submarine Canyon, giving it the ideal position to work with a host of academic collaborators, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), UC Santa Cruz, the CSU Moss Landing Marine Lab, Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and the Naval Research Laboratory. During my visit, I attended a Marine Debris Symposium hosted by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), and presented a poster on my Fellowship work connecting Ocean Observing System data to marine debris. The Symposium gave me the opportunity to learn about marine debris cleanup and reduction efforts around California, and connected me with people interested in using the data products I have created. Seeing potential applications for these products motivated me to solve several tricky coding problems to improve my products.

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(Top) In August, I visited several shellfish farms in Oregon and Washington. Jen McWhorter (far left), the SCCOOS Public Relations and Government Outreach Coordinator, and Jen Rhoades (middle left), the IOOS Pacific Region Coordnator, joined me on the tours. Dave Steele (middle right), the owner of Rock Point Oyster Farms, generously organized our tours. (Bottom) I also visited Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, one of the first hatcheries to realize that low-pH waters have been causing problems in shellfish development in recent years (photos courtesy of Jen McWhorter).

In August, I had a wonderful trip to Oregon and Washington to visit my third OOS host, the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), and its stakeholders. In recent years, NANOOS has collaborated closely with shellfish farmers in the Pacific Northwest to help monitor, understand and highlight the detrimental effects of increasing ocean acidification on shellfish growth and survival. During my visit, I toured several shellfish farms to hear how they benefit from collaborations with NANOOS. One aspect of my fellowship has involved updating the West Coast Ocean Acidification Assets Inventory (a list of West Coast OA monitoring equipment and stations), which is being incorporated into the new IOOS Pacific Region OA Portal. Learning firsthand about the impacts of OA on larval growth and shell formation added value and context to the extensive lists of monitoring assets and data that I had been working with.

I also attended several WCGA meetings throughout the year, to help me understand West Coast ocean policy and how my fellowship could contribute meaningful data to West Coast ocean partnerships. I have had the chance to help plan this year’s West Coast Ocean Data Network Meeting, which focused on unveiling the West Coast Ocean Data Portal and associated datasets and connections developed this year, including the WCGA-OOS partnerships that I have helped work on during my Fellowship.

My California Sea Grant Fellowship has been an incredible growth experience. Wrangling Pythons (coding scripts) and refining my knowledge of West Coast oceanography and ocean organization acronyms has helped me realize that integrated, policy-applicable oceanographic work is what I want to do in the future. I will miss working at the incredible Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but will be taking time to travel and pursue my land- and ocean-based interests, including horse polo, bird-watching, tall-boat sailing and SCUBA diving. I will be checking the CDIP wave forecasts religiously as I attempt to learn to surf, and will remain vigilant in my quest to pick up every scrap of beach trash and to educate fellow grocery-shoppers about the environmental benefits of reusable bags. I hope to dive back into the world of oceanography soon, via a Ph.D. program or related work. Maybe someday, I’ll find my way back to the Ocean Observing Systems.

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Sweeping up California’s plastic bags

Plastic bags are easily incorporated into natural systems, and often end up in the ocean, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California's statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing that cycle (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

Plastic bags often end up in rivers and oceans, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing this problem (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

If you’re an environmentalist, California may be the ideal place to live. Not only is the state filled with extensive and diverse natural wonders, but California has traditionally been at the forefront of environmental conservation movements. Despite this tendency, it has taken years of failed legislation, and much work-around and energy from local organizations, for California to finally pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill (SB270), which was introduced earlier this year by Senator Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, was passed by the Senate on Aug. 29 and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 30.

The ban didn’t come out of the blue. California, for all its environmental leanings, uses approximately 13 billion single-use plastic bags every year. Numerous cities and counties have passed local plastic bag bans in recent years. San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban bags when it enacted a law in April 2007. Malibu, Manhattan Beach and Fairfax followed suit within the next year, and by 2014, 88 California municipalities have been covered by plastic bag bans (the most recent was Davis, which banned plastic bags last October, effective this past July). Plastic bags, along with other plastic debris, are cluttering urban areas and natural ecosystems around the world, and can cause significant damage and death to wildlife. Rather than fight an unending battle attempting to clean up plastic litter, local governments have seen the benefit of simply removing single-use plastic bags from the equation.

The bag ban bill has had to fight opposition from several angles. In fact, a previous plastic bag ban attempt was introduced by Padilla last year, but was defeated by three votes. The main opposition comes from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents U.S. plastic bag manufacturers, and claims that a bag ban will result in significant job losses. Others worry that the bag ban will unfairly affect lower-income residents by imposing a 10 cent fee for paper bags. Senator Padilla and proponents of the ban remain unperturbed, citing the overwhelming successes of the numerous local and county bag bans over the past few years, and resident support for those bans.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is  a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

Don’t expect plastic bags to become rare collector’s items anytime soon, though. The ban won’t go into effect until July 1, 2015 for grocery stores, and July 1, 2016 for smaller convenience stores. And it doesn’t cover things like produce bags and plastic dry-cleaning covers.

California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a crucial step toward reducing the production of plastics that can end up in our waterways and in the ocean, but unfortunately our ecosystems already contain multitudes of plastics. One of the upcoming features of the new WCGA West Coast Ocean Data Portal is a Marine Viewer tool where marine debris cleanup data can be overlain with other datasets, including city and county bag bans, river and stream watersheds that may carry plastics to the ocean, and coastal surface currents that may affect plastic movements and deposition along the coast. In fact, one of the main goals for the oceanographic products that I’ve created during my Sea Grant fellowship has been to provide information on oceanographic movements that can be used in conjunction with debris cleanup datasets, to determine how plastics may move along the West Coast, and where they might land.

In the end, hopefully California’s plastic bag ban won’t be just another environmental law in our state’s long history of conservation movements. We should use it as key step toward urging our society to reject our ingrained single-use, throwaway mentality, in favor of preserving and reusing the resources we have.

The iconic "plastic bag video" from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California's recent statewide plastic bag ban, although not all disposable plastic bags will be phased out by the law.

“There’s so much beauty in the world” – The iconic “plastic bag video” from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California’s recent statewide plastic bag ban.