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BODEGA BAY — It's been called the "evil twin" of climate change, an environmental peril so daunting and widespread that it could undo much of the world's food web, undermine global nutrition and devastate coastal economies.

Ocean acidification, however, is often largely overlooked outside the circles of scientists, yet North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman is seeking to somehow change that and spur action on the issue before it's too late.

Acidification of the world's oceans, said Huffman, D-San Rafael, "is the biggest thing that nobody is talking about."

Shellfish grown off the nation's West Coast already display the ill effects of rapid changes in the ocean's chemistry, an early sign that the health of the marine ecosystem could hang in the balance, Huffman said.

"You can't really overstate the impact of this," Huffman said at a news conference this week at Bodega Marine Laboratory that was attended by representatives from science, aquaculture and government.

"We're very, very quickly approaching the tipping point, I believe," Huffman said.

Huffman's district runs from the Golden Gate to the Oregon border, taking in about a third of the coast of California, where seafood is a $24-billion industry, supporting 145,000 jobs.

The 2nd Congressional District is on the front lines of the issue because the shift toward ocean acidity is expected to be especially pronounced along the North Coast, said John Largier, an environmental science and policy professor at Bodega Marine Lab.

Absorption of excess carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere at historically high rates is lowering the pH of oceans around the planet, scientists say.

Its impact on the North Coast is amplified by a natural upwelling that serves as a kind of conveyor belt, bringing deep water made naturally acidic and rich in carbon dioxide by decaying organic matter toward the surface, where it absorbs still more carbon dioxide.

This dynamic effectively puts the northern California coast "at the forefront of acidification," said Largier, who is one of several marine lab scientists studying aspects of acidification and was among those joining Huffman on Monday.

And yet, while global warming has a high degree of public recognition, ocean acidification is a less familiar phenomenon, Huffman said.

Terry Sawyer, owner of Hog Island Oyster Co. on Tomales Bay, put it this way: "We're dealing with something that's hard to touch. It's hard to see, hard to taste, smell, etc."

Huffman organized the event in part to highlight bipartisan legislation that he is co-sponsoring with Washington state Congressman Derek Kilmer.

The Ocean Acidification Innovation Act is intended to spark new research and innovation in adaptive strategies through X-Prize-style competitions.

The bill would leverage existing federal funds to create competitions for research into solutions, Huffman said.

But he said he also wanted to awaken public awareness to an environmental threat that has yet to receive the attention given to climate change.

"This one has a potential to just be enormous and overwhelming," he said.

"Nothing is quite as scary as acidification," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Scientists say the oceans absorb a quarter or more of the carbon dioxide humankind puts into the atmosphere — about 22 million tons a day, on top of the estimated 525 billion tons absorbed over the past two centuries.

What exactly that means for the planet is still not known, Largier said, though "it doesn't look good."

Shellfish, however, and particularly West Coast oysters, are providing some clues. Scientists are looking at reproductive failures in their midst in recent years — problems they ascribe to the interference of low pH water with the synthesis of calcium carbonate through which oyster larvae, and presumably other shellfish, develop hard, protective shells.

Sawyer and other West Coast purveyors of farm-raised oysters have seen "complete crashes" at some hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest, where he and other producers obtain the oyster larvae to seed their farms.

Sawyer has had similar die-offs at his Tomales Bay operation, enough so that he's building a new hatchery in Humboldt Bay to provide seed for his farm.

He and his staff, meanwhile, are working closely with the marine lab to monitor and document conditions at his facility and develop strategies to try to adapt.

The entire fishing industry is at risk, given the role of calcium carbonate synthesis in skeletal development, potentially disrupting the entire food web, from the lowest phytoplankton on up, Largier said.

Largier and his colleagues emphasized that the world's oceans are already contending with pollution, areas of low oxygen and rampant over fishing. Those problems are likely to compound any effects of acidification.

"The science is really early days," Largier said.

UC Davis researcher Daniel Swezey, said one of the alarming features of ocean acidification is that a certain amount is inescapable, given the volume of past and current carbon dioxide emissions.

"We're kind of locked in to a certain amount of change," he said.

Largier said reducing carbon dioxide emissions is the only real fix but conceded that even large-scale, global changes in human behavior might not be evident for decades.

But that's "no reason not to start acting now," Largier said.

"Even if we completely adapt," said Grader, "if we don't start changing the ways we're doing things now, we're going to lose our ocean. We're going to lose the planet."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.