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Oil spill hints at broader threats to ocean health – Redlands Daily Facts


While Southern California’s coastal waters are healthier than two decades ago, this month’s Orange County oil spill underscores the vulnerability of the region’s marine life — and is helping bring to the surface ongoing threats of climate change and contamination from a range of sources.

State policies — some used as models worldwide — and more stringent federal regulations have steadily improved the region’s ocean-water quality, marine-life habitat and coastal protections during this century.

But the environmental horizon is ominous, say ecologists.

“For all intents and purposes, California’s ocean health is better off than 20 years ago, but there is a caveat,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “Mother Nature and climate change is moving faster than our laws and policies.”

Contaminated urban runoff into the ocean continues to be a problem and plastic waste is having a growing impact on marine life, including breaking down into microplastics that make their way into the aquatic food chain and seafood consumed by humans.

But experts say the most worrisome threats to the ocean and coastline are directly related to human-fueled climate change.

“Those climate-related problems are going to get worse, and we’ve done a horrible job dealing with them,” said Richard Ambrose, a coastal ecologist at UCLA.

Scrambled ecosystems

The same greenhouse gases responsible for warming the Earth’s atmosphere are affecting ocean waters. Average ocean temperatures rose between 0.6 and 0.8 degrees Fahrenheit from 1971 to 2010, and are projected to increase by as much as 7 degrees by 2100, according to the 2018 interagency National Climate Assessment.

The increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also hiking carbon levels in the ocean. The result, an effect known as ocean acidification, is best known for killing coral, but it also makes it more difficult for most shellfish to to grow shells. Additionally, the changing climate is reducing oxygen levels in the sea, a shift that particularly effects deep water marine life.

“People have heard coral reefs are suffering, but they don’t know that the ecosystems in their own backyards are too,” said Kristen Davis, head of UC Irvine’s Coastal Dynamics Laboratory.

Among the consequences is a loss of kelp forests and other vital habitat, displacement of species seeking cooler locales or waters with more oxygen, and the scrambling of ecosystems and food-chain hierarchies — including human access to seafood. Climate-driven sea-level rise will increasingly threaten not only coastal wildlife habitat but also buildings and other human infrastructure.

The Orange County oil spill is offering a temporary glimpse of life with dramatically reduced coastal tourism, recreation and commercial fishing options, impacts that could return permanently as the changing climate’s effect on the ocean increases.

That’s why reducing greenhouse gas emissions is at the top of the to-do list for many coastal environmentalists — and why the spill is amplifying calls to end offshore drilling.

“Sea life is feeling the pressure of warming waters and sea-level rise, but we can’t see that,” Davis said. “If the oil spill can make people more aware of the other effects of fossil fuels, that would be helpful. This oil spill is just one of the threats.”

Reason for hope

Davis is among those who point to past progress as cause for optimism in addressing ongoing and future marine issues, including those related to climate.

“We’ve seen that we can make the ocean better,” she said. “That gives me hope we can do more going forward.”

The federal Clean Water Act of 1977 was a key step toward cleaning coastal waters, contributing to growing regulations governing the pumping of sewage into the ocean.

“Originally, (sewage) wasn’t treated at all,” said UCLA’s Ambrose. “Now, nearly all of the plants in Southern California have advanced treatment.”

California’s Marine Protective Act of 1999 was the nation’s first comprehensive, science-based state law requiring the establishment of marine protected areas with protections from fishing and other offshore activity as well increased safeguards against sewage and other contaminated runoff. About 16% of the state’s coastal waters are in Marine Protected Areas, helping to restore overfished species and fortifying dwindling habitats.

The program is world renowned and offers a model for what the state should do for all of its coastal waters, according to Surfrider’s Sekich-Quinn. Currently, Orange County has a marine protected area reaching from Crystal Cove to Dana Point, and protected areas in portions of Upper Newport Bay and the Bolsa Chica Reserve. Los Angeles County has a protected area off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The state’s Coastal Commission, established in 1972, and its empowering Coastal Act of 1976, are credited with protecting coastal resources and public access to them.

“It’s why we aren’t like New Jersey or South Florida, where they have massive buildings on the beach,” Sekich-Quinn said, referring to California’s coast. “Because of that, we’re better positioned to deal with sea-level rise.”

Efforts to reduce contaminated urban runoff and ocean-bound plastic waste have been less successful but continue to expand.

From 1990, when Heal the Bay began reporting comprehensive water quality data for Southern California beaches, through 2015, water quality steadily improved, but progress has stalled since. While regulators are calling for cities and counties to do more to address polluted runoff, and Los Angeles County voters in 2018 approved a property tax hike for that purpose, Heal the Bay’s Luke Ginger said there’s “still major work to be done.”

Fledgling efforts to stop the flow of plastics into the ocean include a ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, ratified by voters in 2016, and a 2018 law restricting restaurant’s distribution of plastic straws. Gov. Gavin Newsom this month signed into law a measure expanding the plastic straw restrictions to include plastic utensils and condiment packages. And next year voters may see a ballot measure calling for all single-use, disposable packaging and single-use, disposable foodware to be compostable or recyclable

The big problem

While past policies have improved the region’s coastal waters, ecologists say those efforts are on the verge of being overtaken by climate change-related issues.

“My worry is that we’re winning the battle but losing the war,” said George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy.

Even the recent oil spill is expected to eventually be left in the rearview mirror. While full recovery for damaged wetlands might take three or four decades, the ocean habitat is expected to recover in five to 10 years, according to UCLA’s Ambrose.

But the solution to preventing future spills is the same as the response necessary to reduce climate change, activist and experts say.

“We need to stop extracting and using fossil fuels,” Leonard said. “This will end CO2 and methane emissions and all the environmental justice concerns associated with the industry.  Obviously, this is a big lift. And we need to be concerned about unintended consequences — (for example) mining the deep sea for minerals for batteries for electric cars as a climate solution. But that is ultimately the root and where it all starts.”

Leonard is among those who trace nearly all negative impacts on the ocean — even overfishing — to fossil fuels.

“One of the major drivers of overcapacity, globally, are subsidies from governments to their international fishing fleets,” he said. “Many times this comes as fuel subsidies which makes it artificially cheap to travel large distances to catch fish.

“The oil on the beach in Huntington Beach is a local tragedy,” Leonard added. “But the extraction of fossil fuels is impacting oceans globally. Overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change — every problem in the ocean is tied to fossil fuels.”



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