Conference Spotlights ‘Other C02 Problem’

From left, Ernest Piton makes a point while fellow captains Ray Rosher and Eric Cartaya, tourism chief Bill Talbert, and state Rep. Holly Raschein listen.
By Maya Bell

From left, Ernest Piton makes a point while fellow captains Ray Rosher and Eric Cartaya, tourism chief Bill Talbert, and state Rep. Holly Raschein listen.

Conference Spotlights ‘Other C02 Problem’

By Maya Bell
Forum aimed to raise awareness about ocean acidification, an invisible threat to Florida’s coral reefs, fisheries, and tourism economy.

Ocean acidification is such an invisible threat to Florida’s coral reefs, fisheries, and tourism economy that three of the four “stakeholder” panelists invited to discuss the topic didn’t know what it was before they accepted. And they included two charter boat fishermen who make their livelihoods on the water and Bill Talbert, who for decades has led the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I had to go to Google to find out,” Talbert said Friday at the seminar “Ocean Acidification in Florida,” hosted by the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in conjunction with the Ocean Conservancy.

But raising awareness of the rapidly increasing acidity of ocean waters was the whole point of the conference, a goal that got a considerable boost from the keynote speaker, U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. One of just 13 Republicans in Congress to acknowledge the importance of curbing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, 30 percent of which are absorbed by the ocean and dramatically changing its chemistry, Ros-Lehtinen announced she will introduce a bill to reauthorize, expand, and rename the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000 to reflect “the importance of finding solutions to the impacts of ocean acidification.”

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said she and fellow
Miami Republican Carlos Curbelo will introduce a bill to help
address ocean acidification as early as this week.

“It’s a threat that I don’t think very many folks in our community have even heard of, let alone understand,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The conference featured two panel discussions: one to engage stakeholders, and the other to explain what’s known about ocean acidification, which Rosenstiel researchers have long been dedicated to advancing.

“As a state whose identity and fortune are inextricably linked to the ocean, we consider ocean acidification research a top priority,” Dean Roni Avissar said. “The University of Miami’s world-class scientific capacity and expertise can help Florida prepare and respond to the impacts of acidification, but more research and funding is needed.”

As Ros-Lehtinen noted, her proposed CORAL Act (Conserving Our Reefs and Livelihoods)—which fellow Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, another member of the group of 13, will co-sponsor—is all about funding and where to put it. It would broaden the funds available to support research on the impacts of ocean acidification and warming seas, improve real-time monitoring of reef conditions, and expand reef restoration and recovery efforts.

That was welcome news to Chris Langdon, head of the Rosenstiel School’s Coral and Climate Change Laboratory and one of the world’s foremost authorities on ocean acidification, or OA. In May he and his research team published research showing that the limestone foundations of coral reefs in the upper Florida Keys are already dissolving seasonally faster than they are growing.

“We used to think this was a problem for the future, that it wasn’t an immediate threat, that we may have another 50 to 60 years before things got very critical,” Langdon said. “But our recent research shows that some of our reefs in Florida are already in trouble.”

Often called the “other CO2 problem,” the ocean’s increasing absorption of CO2 began with the Industrial Revolution and  is now inhibiting the ability of calcium-carbonate-based organisms, like coral and shellfish, to build their shells and skeletons.

But as Langdon and other panelists said, that problem doesn’t just effect marine life, much of which begins in coral reefs. It threatens Florida’s tourism and commercial fishing industries, which is why charter boat Captains Ray Rosher and Ernest Piton found themselves discussing ocean acidification at Friday’s conference—and asking for simplified science to help educate tourists, fellow fishermen, and others about the invisible threat under sea.

“Our strengths are being the eyes and ears on the water and understanding and sharing what we know,” Rosher said, “but simplifying the process is really an important thing.”

The panel moderator, state Representative Holly Rachein, whose district includes the Florida Keys and South Miami-Dade County, said she  would be bringing the issue of OA to Tallahassee. “I am really excited to start working on this and maybe mimic what they are doing in the state of Washington,” she said.

Rising oceanic acidity already has wreaked havoc in the Pacific northwest, recently costing Washington and Oregon 75 percent of their oyster harvests. Alarmed by the losses, the Ocean Conservancy helped Washington become the first state to launch an OA action plan.

“The science of ocean acidification is evolved enough for us to know that we should be very, very nervous, but what we don’t know is astounding,” said Jeff Watters, the Ocean Conservancy’s director of government relations. “We need academic institutions like the University of Miami to bring light to the dark.”