Answers on acidification should be prizeworthy

The News TribuneJune 26, 2014 

Shuckers compete during the annual OysterFest in Mason County. The county’s economy is heavily dependent on the shellfish industry.

STAFF FILE PHOTO, 2012

At a time when just about every issue has polarized the parties in Congress, two Western Washington representatives have found some common ground: Both see a desperate need to find answers to questions about ocean acidification.

Turning back the hands of time is impractical; carbon emissions related to fossil fuel use are already creating acidic conditions in the world’s waters, which absorb carbon dioxide.

That isn’t expected to change in the near future. So U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, are proposing legislation that would spur researchers to work on issues surrounding acidification and its impacts, which are already being felt in their congressional districts.

The Ocean Acidification Innovation Act, which Kilmer and Beutler introduced in May, would allow federal agencies to use existing funds earmarked for research purposes as prize money in competitions aimed at increasing private and university research into ocean acidification and its impacts. Kilmer says this would generate four to 10 times more value in research than the amount of the prize.

The concept is based on the success of the Ansari X Prize, which in 2004 awarded $10 million to the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. Twenty-six teams vied for the prize and generated more than $1 billion in space-related investments.

That kind of impact is what Kilmer and Beutler are looking for with their legislation in hopes of preserving more than 67,000 Washington jobs and $8 billion in sales related to the fishing and seafood industries. Much of that employment and income is generated in their home districts.

Kilmer’s 6th District encompasses shellfish farms on Hood Canal and South Puget Sound. In Buetler’s Southwest Washington 3rd District, fishing and seafood processing are major employers, with Pacific County producing 25 percent of the nation’s oysters.

Both legislators have been hearing from their constituents that the effects of acidification are being felt. Young oysters aren’t developing as they should, and pteropods — tiny sea creatures that are important parts of the diet for salmon and other food fish — are having a harder time surviving. If the problem continues on its current trajectory, Washington’s seafood interests could be devastated.

It’s vitally important to learn more about how acidification is affecting sea life and find ways to mitigate those effects. By challenging researchers with the prospect of millions in prize money, the legislation proposed by Kilmer and Beutler looks like a good start.

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