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Ocean acidification will cut food and jobs in poor countries - scientists

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 22 Nov 2013 13:27 GMT
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A worker lays fish on a mat for drying during dry fish processing at Cilincing beach in North Jakarta on June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Beawiharta
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WARSAW (Thomson Reuters Foundation) Soaring seawater acidity from rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will hit marine species used for food and livelihoods hard, and will have knock-on impacts on coastal communities, particularly in developing countries, experts said at the UN climate talks in Warsaw.

Poor coastal communities, especially those in small island states whose existence hinges on coral reefs and fishing, will bear the brunt of this change, warned Carol Turley, a senior scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United States and a lead author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4th Assessment Report.

“Poor communities are highly reliant on sea resources for their food and livelihood needs but have limited options to mitigate effects if their current lifestyles become not sustainable due to what is called ocean acidification,” she said at a side event at the climate negotiations, which end Friday.

Coral reefs and shellfish — both important sources of food — will be hit hard, with higher acidification levels predicted to halt all new growth of reefs by the end of the century.

“People who rely on the ocean's ecosystem services – often in developing countries – are especially vulnerable. And coastal communities in Asia-Pacific and South Asian coastal communities are no exception,” said Jorge Luis Valdés, head of Ocean Sciences at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, some of this extra carbon is absorbed by the oceans and converted into acidic compounds, a process called ocean acidification.

Historically, the ocean has absorbed approximately a quarter of all CO2 released into the atmosphere by humans since the start of the industrial revolution, resulting in a 26 percent increase in the acidity of the ocean, according to a 2013 report for policymakers by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP).

The programme was launched in 1987 to coordinate international research on global-scale and regional-scale interactions between Earth's biological, chemical and physical processes and their interactions with human systems.

The acidity of the world's ocean may increase by around 170 percent by the end of the century compared with pre-industrial emission levels, according to the report. This will result in serious economic losses, the report warns.

“The non-stop emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is bound to lead to enormous alterations to land ecosystems and will hit marine species used for food and have knock-on effects on coastal communities, especially in developing countries,” Richard A. Feely, a senior scientist at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, in Seattle, told Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks.

THREAT TO INDONESIA’S FISHERIES

Toferry Primanda, an Indonesian delegation spokesperson at the climate talks, said that ocean acidification is a serious threat to Indonesia’s fisheries, a mainstay of the economy. Exports could suffer and fishermen be pushed out of jobs, he said.

Many reefs and fish species are dying across the Indian Ocean due to rising sea temperatures and acidification that stretches from the Seychelles in the west to Sulawesi and the Philippines in the east – and that also includes reefs in western and eastern Indonesia, Primanda told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Warsaw.

Ocean and inland fisheries in Indonesia produce 5.4 tonnes and 3 tonnes of fish respectively. A little over 7.5 million tonnes is consumed domestically and the rest is exported to earn foreign exchange, according to figures from Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

The ministry’s report estimates that fishing employs 2.5 million people, as well as producing nearly 914,000 indirect jobs.

“Escalating levels of ocean acidification and the depressing future scenario sketched out by end of this century … paint a bleak picture for our country,” said Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia’s presidential special envoy for climate change. About 40 percent of fishermen could lose their jobs and the country’s demand for fish could outstrip supply, he said.

He and Turley urged fast action to slow climate-changing emissions.

“Globally, we have to be prepared for significant economic and ecosystem service losses. But we also know that reducing the rate of carbon dioxide emissions will slow acidification. That has to be the major message for the COP19 meeting,” Turley said.

Developing countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines need to raise the issue of ocean acidification while negotiating on matters such as loss and damages from climate impacts, funding for adaptation, carbon markets and the Clean Development Mechanism, Turley suggested.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad.

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