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As ocean turns more acidic, Florida officials ignore warning signs


One Christmas when I was a kid my parents gave me a chemistry set. No doubt they hoped it would lead me to a career in science or medicine.

But I was a little anarchist, more interested in blowing stuff up than fixing anyone up. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I learned that the manufacturer had failed to include either nitroglycerin or TNT. That limited my ability to make anything go boom.

That’s the extent of my experience with chemistry. If you think about it, though, we all mess around with chemistry all the time. The things we do as we move through this world can alter the chemistry of everything we touch.

That includes our oceans.

Right now, our pollution-belching cars, trucks, planes, boats, and power plants are altering the delicate chemistry of the waters off Florida’s coast, both in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Our fossil fuel consumption is not just making the world hotter and sea levels creep higher. It’s also turning these normally beneficial bodies of water into a more acidic stew. This is a process called, naturally, “ocean acidification.”

You’ve probably never heard of it. But in case you couldn’t guess, it’s a formula for disaster.

“Ocean acidification is already impacting many ocean species, especially organisms like oysters and corals that make hard shells and skeletons by combining calcium and carbonate from seawater,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.

Scientists recently released their latest, most up-to-date version of the National Climate Assessment. That report is not nearly as fun to read as all those Christmas catalogs that land our mailboxes this time of year.

The report produced some big headlines, but none of the stories I saw mentioned the section on ocean acidification. It’s not a sexy topic, but I found it fascinating.

“The oceans are absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually and are becoming more acidic as a result, leading to alterations in marine ecosystems,” the report says. “Over the last 250 years, the oceans have absorbed 560 billion tons of CO2, increasing the acidity of surface waters by 30 percent.”

That may not sound like much of a problem compared to, say, the record-breaking heat wave we experienced this year, or the massive storm surges from our rapidly intensified hurricanes.

But scientists say that ocean acidification is likely to ruin the Florida seafood industry, not to mention erode the state’s shorelines and undermine the limestone that protects Florida’s aquifer, the main source of our clean drinking water.

Speaking as someone who enjoys consuming lots of fresh Florida seafood, I am freaking out a little. And I’m far from the only one.

“It’s definitely a concern for the whole seafood industry,” Tom McCrudden, owner of the Tequesta-based Great Florida Shellfish Company, told me this week. “Yet there haven’t been a whole lot of resources devoted to the topic.”

There’s a reason for that. It involves our pro-fossil fuel politicians, many of whom are in Tallahassee — and in denial.

Superman studies kryptonite

The first expert I ever talked to about this chemical phenomenon was a scientist named Lisa Robbins. She had spent 14 years as an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey. One afternoon in 2019, I drove over to her waterfront home in St. Petersburg to interview her.

From Robbins’ back yard, I could see out to the Sunshine Skyway. The view stretches almost to where Tampa Bay flows into the Gulf. She told me it’s especially beautiful at night when the lights on the bridge change colors.

Beyond the bridge, on the surface of the Gulf, everything seems fine. The vast sea that covers 617,000 square miles from Florida to Texas and southward to Mexico still looks healthy.

But Robbins warned me that appearances are deceiving. She and her colleagues had been studying the rise in ocean acidification for 20 years. Right from the start they suspected that the problem would someday crop up in the Gulf as it had elsewhere, such as the Pacific, where it was already causing serious problems in oysters.

Robbins said she was first drawn to studying ocean acidification two decades ago because she was an expert on a material called “carbonate.”

Not carbonated, like Willy Wonka’s fizzy lifting drinks. Not bicarbonate, like the stuff Speedy Alka-Seltzer says you should take for an upset tummy. Carbonate, period.

Limestone is a carbonate material, as are the shells of oysters and crabs and many coral reefs. Acidification dissolves carbonate materials. Like Superman studying kryptonite, we need to know all about the substance that weakens us.

You measure acidity vs. alkalinity with a number called the “pH.” The Gulf’s pH balance used to be just right, so that shellfish could form their shells and corals could thrive.

Acidic seawater makes those shellfish lose their ability to make solid shells. It makes corals, crucially important as nurseries for fish of all kinds, crumble to bits. It makes the oyster beds that line Florida’s coast dissolve, eroding the foundation of the coast.

Robbins was lead author on a scientific study published in 2017 on the changes in 10 Florida shellfish estuaries and hundreds of shellfish bed stations along both of Florida’s coasts.

The study found “significant regional trends of consistent pH decreases in 8 out of the 10 estuaries.” The pH decreases meant they became more and more acidic.

“This is happening right now,” she told me. “The chemistry is straightforward. As the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, the oceans absorb it and increase in carbon dioxide too. When there are increases in carbon dioxide, the ocean becomes more acidic.”

So far, she said, the change in the Gulf’s pH might seem tiny “but it’s tremendously important to the organisms living in the Gulf who need to strictly regulate their pH.”

The Gulf connects into that underground limestone maze along the state’s shoreline. That means acidic seawater can intrude into the aquifer. The limestone is vulnerable to being eroded by the acidic seawater, said Robbins.

“We’re crumbling as we speak,” she said.

Yet the scientists were just getting started in learning about this. The seafood industry is pretty important to Florida — its economic impact is estimated at $393 million, I asked Robbins why she and her fellow scientists seemed to be far behind on helping such a crucial economic force.

“The Trump administration suddenly said ocean acidification and climate change wasn’t a priority,” she said. That meant the funding for studies dried up. “As a result, we are now lagging behind the rest of the world” in grappling with the problem.

Keep your climate-fix money!

A few scientists tried to get around the Trump-era ban by proposing studies calling ocean acidification by different names, Robbins told me that day. They’d submit funding applications that said they’d focus on “carbon cycling” or “biological processes.”

But sneaky science is a poor way to advance human knowledge. Just ask the folks who tried to study astronomy after Galileo discovered the consequences of announcing that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Although the federal government is now back in the hands of a reality-based administration, that’s sadly not true with our state government.

We have Gov. Ron “I’ve Never Even Met the Florida Republican Party Chairman!” DeSantis, who contends any concern about climate change is just “politicizing the weather,” and says he opposes doing any “left-wing stuff” to counteract it. And we have lots of fossil-fool lawmakers who oppose any financial moves to fight alteration of the climate.

These are not mere political talking points. In June, DeSastrous vetoed the seed money needed to get what would have been $346 million from Washington to help Floridians buy energy-saving appliances.

And just last month, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue turned down $320 million in federal money aimed at reducing carbon emissions from tailpipes. He argued that federal transportation officials were overstepping their authority by earmarking money to cut pollution.

“Rather than support the continued politicization of our roadways,” he wrote, “FDOT’s time, money, and resources will be focused on building roads and bridges — not reducing carbon emissions.”

Yes indeed, telling those bossy bureaucrats in D.C. to keep their climate-fixing money will definitely show them who’s ideologically pure!

Meanwhile, though, seafood entrepreneurs like McCrudden have to worry about their clams dying because they can’t form a shell.

Invisible threat

Robbins has retired, so for an update this week I talked to Jennifer Vreeland-Dawson, who’s coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico Ocean Acidification Network, and Emily Hall, who manages the ocean acidification program at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

Hall told me that they’re already seeing acidification damaging corals in the upper Keys, particularly in the Cheeca Rocks area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“The corals are dissolving faster than they’re building,” she told me.

Members of Congress are just now waking up to the seriousness of this problem, she said, but state officials are not “because it involves climate change.”

Meanwhile, in the Gulf, Vreeland-Dawson said her network has deployed 19 monitor buoys so far to check the change in the water’s chemistry. There’s one in Tampa Bay, she said, and another amid the coral reefs in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

What they don’t have yet, she told me, is a reporting network, where people like McCrudden could call or email data about how acidification is affecting shellfish.

Also, although the scientists are able to document that the alteration in the Gulf’s chemistry is still happening, she said, “there’s not a lot of long-term data collection.”

Vreeland-Dawson didn’t say this, but it seems to me it probably would have been better if they hadn’t been interrupted by a certain Palm Beach club owner who cares more about golf than the Gulf.

One major advance in the past four years is that they’re now talking with counterparts in other countries around the Gulf, including Mexico and Cuba, she said. They are communicating via What’s App (or as I like to call it, “What’s App, Doc?”)

One of the things they’re all investigating now, she said, is whether the increase in acidity is responsible for triggering blooms of harmful algae such as red tide and blue-green algae, which are responsible for massive fishkills. So far, the results seem promising.

“There could be some correlation between the two,” she said.

Hall agreed. She’s been working on a study about that and hopes to see it published soon.

In a way, it would be good if they could connect the two things. That would solve the scientists’ biggest problem with finding resources to fight acidification: It wears what Harry Potter might call a cloak of invisibility.

“The problem with ocean acidification is that it’s not seen,” Vreeland-Dawson said. “We’re primarily concerned about things that we CAN see.”

Testing solutions

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news on the acidification front.

For one thing, Vreeland-Dawon said, some areas along the Florida coast where spring-fed rivers flow to the sea show a surprising resistance to turning acidic. The scientists are not sure why but are trying to understand it now.

Meanwhile, she said some scientists are investigating ways to remove carbon from the water. They see some promise in seagrass and macroalgae.

Another possible solution is being explored by Chris Langdon, a University of Miami professor. He’s experimenting with counteracting the excess carbon by adding ingredients that would make the water more alkaline. One additive, he said, is a mineral from volcanic rock.

One major worry: the cost.

“It’s expensive,” he explained, “because it would have to be done on a global scale.”

Shells go boom

When I first called McCrudden this week, he said he was in the middle of something and he’d have to call me back. But when I mentioned I had questions about ocean acidification, he stopped whatever was working on so he could talk to me.

That’s how important the subject is to him.

“I’ve got the oldest hatchery in the state,” he explained. “I’ve been doing this for 26 or 27 years.”

A former employee of an environmental cleanup firm, McCrudden took a course at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to learn how to raise clams. He now raises them to the size of dimes in his Tequesta hatchery and then sells them as “seed” for clam farmers all around the state. He has a partnership agreement with an operation in Cedar Key, and he’s building an additional hatchery and nursery on Florida’s west coast.

“I also purchased a property down in Chokoloskee where I am currently waiting for permits to begin building another facility,” he told me.

The key to successful clam farming is the water quality. If the chemical composition is off — for instance, because it’s turning too acidic — then he’s got no crops.

“They’re vulnerable in their early stages when they’re just forming their shells,” he told me. “If the pH is off even a little, they can’t form their shells.”

He told me believes he’s starting to see some signs of that happening to his clams, but he’s not sure. He wishes some experts could tell him.

But right now, our clueless state officials would rather keep us all burning fossil fuels and watch his business go boom.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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  • kmskepton

    Thank you for bringing light to this.

    Monday, December 11, 2023 Report this

  • Cat L

    A natural system can recover, provided the conditions causing it to be out of balance change. But, persistent, repeated instances will KEEP systems out of balance. We have increased ALL the forms of negative impact on Florida’s natural world.

    Clear cutting that comes with large scale development takes out all the plants and trees whose healthy roots were in the ground, holding it. The shores too, how many mangroves or grasses do you see with those sea walls? Chemicals and fertilizers discourage microbes in the soil that would properly feed the grasses, plants and trees and encourage deep root growth. Water in the ground is part of the support system, as well as an essential need. When combined with the above detailed ocean acidification…. taking out another land stabilizing system seems really dumb.

    The increase in frequency and intensity of the storms looks to me like a bad combo along with everything else. Sand moves, especially when it's been freshly oversaturated by a hurricane.

    Tuesday, December 12, 2023 Report this