April 3, 2021 will mark the second annual World Aquatic Animal Day. This effort started by the Animal Law Clinic at the Lewis & Clark Law School as part of their Aquatic Animal Law Initiative aims to raise awareness of the aquatic animals that live in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. The designated theme for this year is “The Impact of Our Human Activities on Aquatic Animals.”

Most of us may not realize the relationship between the things that we do every day and the health of our waterways. Nevertheless, significant changes are occurring all around us because of the things that we do. For example, only in the past couple of decades have researchers and scientists become aware of the full impact that the burning of fossil fuels has had on the oceans. Now it is a race to educate people and find a way to stop the damage.

How does burning fossil fuels affect the ocean?

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we have used coal, oil, and gas to fuel our lives. Readily available around the world, we use them for transportation, energy production, and manufacturing. However, what we did not realize at the time was what the implications of burning these fuels would be – a colorless gas known as carbon dioxide.

In small quantities, carbon dioxide is filtered out of the air for us by trees and other plants. They lock away the carbon in their leaves and give us back clean oxygen. However, we produce more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide per day on a global scale. So, where does it go? For many years, scientists believed that it remained in the air causing global warming, and much of it does. However, a large percentage of the gases produced get dissolved in the oceans. This dissolved carbon dioxide lowers the pH of the ocean water, making it more acidic. It wasn’t until 2003 that this phenomenon was described as “ocean acidification.”

What effect does pH have on aquatic life?

Acidic water in the ocean is not healthy for any animal. Some species have adapted to higher acid environments, such as those surrounding underwater thermal vents or volcanoes. However, adaptation often requires animals to squander their time and resources on overcoming their environment instead of growing and reproducing.

Many aquatic animals depend on a process known as calcification to build life-sustaining structures like shells out of calcium carbonate. Calcification is difficult, if not impossible, in acidic environments, as the acid can actually dissolve the structure they worked so hard to build. Clams, mollusks, oysters, sea urchins, and scallops all depend on calcification. Even the microscopic organisms at the bottom of the food chain (i.e., phytoplankton and zooplankton) rely on calcification for their structure. Without these sources of nourishment, animals higher up in the food chain would struggle to survive.

Coral reefs are a prime example of a calcified structure that is endangered by this change in pH. The coral polyps that make the reefs build them out of calcium carbonate. They build them slowly – one layer at a time. As the oceans grow more acidic, building a robust and thick reef structure becomes more challenging. The reefs have become increasingly fragile, leaving them vulnerable to storms, fish, and human activity.

If the coral reefs break, it can have a profound impact back on land. The reefs protect the coastline from hurricanes and wave erosion. They also provide a living for many people. Fishers go there to fish, and scuba guides take people to reefs to look at the incredible biodiversity that exists in this unique ecosystem. Reef destruction could be more costly than we think.

What can be done to improve the ocean environment?

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for the problem. It is going to take time for the ocean to return to its natural pH. The only significant way to make a dent in this massive problem is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. The United States and China are the top two carbon-producing nations in the world. If we want less carbon dioxide dissolving in the ocean, we need to put less of it into the air.

While tires do not directly put carbon into the atmosphere, the way in which we deal with old tires can be a part of the solution. In 2015, cement production accounted for 8% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Fossil fuels such as coal fuel most of the kilns in which cement is produced. However, there is a cleaner option. Tire-derived fuel (TDF) can be used in place of coal. Cement kilns can burn TDF, a combination of shredded rubber from a tire recycling plant, with other fuels, or even burn whole tires. The result is a cleaner-burning fuel source that puts less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Despite decades of research and observation, we still understand very little about the aquatic life that fills our oceans. What we are coming to understand, however, is how interconnected their fate is with our own. The human impact that we have on the water ecosystems around us will inevitably impact our own lives. We can use the knowledge and technology that we have now to change the future for the planet and all of its aquatic creatures as we celebrate our relationship on World Aquatic Animal Day.