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New York should seek to understand acid damage to our waters

Corals on Mytilus Seamount off the coast of

Corals on Mytilus Seamount off the coast of New England in the North Atlantic Ocean are seen in 2013. Credit: AP / NOAA

We all pretty much understand the basic global warming equation: Burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere, where it helps overheat the planet. What many of us don’t know is that about a quarter of that carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean. That also means trouble.

Not only are our oceans getting warmer, but they’re also becoming more acidic. That makes it harder for clams, oysters and scallops to grow shells, threatening their existence. It also imperils sea grass, which protects coastlines against storms and reduces erosion.

New York, and Long Island in particular, are vulnerable to ocean acidification, which is why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must sign a bill to create a task force to study it. The legislation by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) would bring together scientists and other experts to determine how ocean acidification affects New York and what can be done to protect its resources. That would complement efforts to clean the region’s waters — nitrogen pollution also increases acidity.

The problem came into focus in 2007, when the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest was decimated. Research put the blame on increasingly acidic waters, and it led to adaptations — such as oyster hatcheries drawing water at times of day when carbon dioxide is low — that are helping the industry rebound for now. Despite its own well-documented struggles, New York State still ranks sixth in economic dependence on shellfish, a vital part of its fishery revenues.

Cuomo should sign the bill, and if the under-resourced state Department of Environmental Conservation needs an additional staff member to oversee the task force, he should make that happen, too. Efforts to restore the region’s once-vaunted oyster, clam and scallop fisheries are too important not to support. — The editorial board