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Ocean Acidification: Meeting Focuses on Impacts and Adaptation Strategies in Latin America


Coral reefs are threatened by ocean warming and acidification. Researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco study the effects of ocean acidification and other environmental stressors on marine organisms. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Scientists, policy-makers and representatives from the aquaculture sector came together last week in the first regional Latin American meeting of the Ocean Acidification international Reference User Group (OAiRUG) to develop an action plan to better understand and address ocean acidification.

Co-organised by the IAEA through the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC), the high-level meeting at Invemar in Santa Marta, Colombia from 19-21 March 2018, included an official address by HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco.

The three-day event focused on the impacts ocean acidification could have in Latin America, a region where the sea is a key source of food and revenue. The action plan developed outlines gaps in ocean acidification science, policy and communication and establishes priorities for action as well as possible adaptation strategies.

Participants stressed why it is important for policy-makers to address the root cause of ocean acidification and climate change, namely to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

“The effects of human activities on the environment are already noticeable, and if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at the current rate, grave consequences are to be expected for the marine environment and for human populations depending on it,” said Dan Laffoley, chair of the OAiRUG. The group’s objective is to share scientific findings with non-scientific audiences and science end-users, in particular policy and decision-makers.   

Impact on food security

In the most pessimistic scenarios, experts highlighted that food security in certain areas of the world could be threatened. Ocean acidification, a series of changes in ocean chemistry, could impact the capacity of many organisms to grow shells and bones. Below a certain pH, there is a decrease in the levels of calcium carbonate in the water, which is one of the main elements many sea organisms use to grow. As organisms are more sensitive in early life stages, some would not survive to adulthood and some species populations could decrease, such as mussels and oysters.

Ocean acidification, coupled with climate change, also threatens coral reefs and therefore entire ecosystems and the livelihoods of populations who depend on them. Coral reefs are even more diverse environments than rainforests, providing a habitat and spawning ground for a variety of species, with some experts estimating the “services” they provide to be worth trillions of dollars.

“The combined effects of ocean acidification, warming and reduced oxygen levels are threatening marine ecosystems across the globe,” said David Osborn, Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories.  “These multiple stressors also affect economic activity, such as fisheries and tourism, dependent on those ecosystems. The effects are not uniform across the globe. It is critical that we develop local and regional capacity to understand and tackle this game-changing problem.”

Fostering information sharing and research

Ocean acidification is still a relatively unknown environmental issue. A clear understanding of its full impacts is lacking and information in some regions is still limited. Because it has different impacts in different areas, the issue must be addressed at a regional level and requires the involvement of local actors in observing, monitoring and adapting to change.

The IAEA OA-ICC supports regional networks around the world and fosters the sharing of information and research. It supported the creation of the Latin American Ocean Acidification Network (LAOCA) in 2015, whose co-chairs Michelle Graco and Nelson Lagos highlighted the tremendous heterogeneity in ecosystems and biodiversity across Latin America.

The meeting brought together participants from across Latin America, as well as from international organisations, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO), the Prince Albert II Foundation of Monaco and the Monegasque Association for Ocean Acidification (AMAO).

Towards sustainable development

As a sign of the importance of the topic, target three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 deals with ocean acidification.

“To have comparable data globally and be able to address the issue effectively, there needs to be a standardised methodology to measure ocean acidification and evaluate its impacts,” said Kirsten Isensee, Programme Specialist at IOC -UNESCO.  “Without proper and reliable information, it is difficult to take appropriate action.”  

Ms Isensee presented the work being done with the participation of the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) and the IAEA OA-ICC. This includes the development of an indicator methodology for target 14.3 of SDG 14 to assess average marine acidity. The methodology, similar to a recipe, provides guidance to scientists and countries in terms of what measurements are needed and how often, as well as how to report the collected information so that it is transparent and traceable.

The IAEA supports IOC-UNESCO in developing guidelines on how ocean chemistry and biological data can be collected and shared worldwide to advance the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Participants at the Latin American meeting of the Ocean Acidification international Reference User Group (OAiRUG) developed an action plan to better understand and address ocean acidification. (Photo: Miguel Ospino)

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