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Alumna Focus: Enduring Concern for Ocean Health Leads to Invitation from State Department

by Bill Giduz
Valauri-Orton at a Peruvian fishing community, interviewing the president of the local fishing association

Alexis Valauri-Orton '12 still marvels at the unplanned, long and winding chain of events that has led her to a spot on the program with Secretary of State John Kerry, and her experiences at Davidson have an awful lot to do with it!

This Seattle native will be one of six panelists at Secretary Kerry's "Our Ocean" conference at the State Department, Tuesday, June 17. The conference will bring together experts, lawmakers and advocates to examine scientific evidence and lessons learned, and propose actions to protect the ocean.

Valauri-Orton will be speaking about ocean acidification, which is one of three major focuses of the conference along with sustainable fisheries and marine pollution. She will share examples of how coastal communities around the world are being affected by acidification, as well as how little knowledge and information about the phenomenon is available to those vulnerable communities.

How did this 24-year-old, just two years out of Davidson, come to be invited for such an honor and responsibility?

"The whole process seems like a series of random events since I was 17," she said. Her concern for the ocean grew from a more general interest in marine biology. She took marine biology classes in high school and competed on her school's National Ocean Science Bowl team.

She credits her father for specifically alerting her to acidification. "When I was younger my dad left articles on my bed, and when I was 17 he left me an article from The New Yorker on ocean acidification. I was shocked. I remember thinking, 'Ocean acidification is a major issue. How come nobody knows about it!?'"

She brought her concern with her when she enrolled at Davidson. But the college does not offer courses in marine biology, so Valauri-Orton studied the problem independently. She wrote a final paper on it for an environmental studies course, created a website about it for animal physiology and, in her environmental studies capstone course, wrote a mock grant proposal that would help fund ocean acidification research.

In addition, in the summer following her sophomore year she interned at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle and helped develop a curriculum on acidification for high school students.

Valauri-Orton in Norway, showing off the first fish she ever caught

She learned about the success of Davidson students in winning fellowships from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, and worked on her application through the summer and fall of her senior year. She titled it, "Thinking Outside the Lab: Discovering the Human Toll of Ocean Acidification." Her proposal made a compelling case for the gravity of the situation, and her interest in traveling to reef and fishery-dependent destinations in six countries around the globe to better understand the social impacts of the phenomenon. 

She did win one of the $25,000 Watson awards, and spent the next year in a challenging, stimulating investigation of acidification that took her to Norway, Hong Kong, Thailand, New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Peru. Her experiences are covered in depth in a blog she maintained at ThinkingOutsideTheLab.wordpress.com.

Vulnerable Communities

In each country she lived in communities she deemed particularly vulnerable to acidification, and studied how residents' livelihoods and cultures are dependent upon marine resources and are being affected by acidification.

She said, "The thing that surprised me most was that so few people had heard of ocean acidification. The second thing was how far-reaching the impacts could be, and how much is at stake. A lot of people understand climate change and are worried about that, but very few have heard of ocean acidification," she said.

One of her challenges was making those who harvest the sea understand that her mission was anthropological, rather than scientific. Valauri-Orton wanted to study how acidification was affecting the lifestyles of millions of people who subsist through the capture and sale of seafood. But, she recalled, it was difficult to convince fishermen of her intent.

"They looked at me like I was crazy when I said I wanted to tag along with them and help them on their harvest," she said. "They said, 'Why would you want to do that? Shouldn't you be enjoying yourself on the beach, or working with the scientists?' I really had to work hard to put myself where I needed to be to get my research done."

Ecosystems in Crisis

Valauri-Orton explained that the oceans absorb human-generated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But as carbon dioxide mixes with ocean water, the water becomes more acidic, and today is 30 percent more acidic than it was before the Industrial Revolution. Even more troubling is that the chemistry of the ocean is changing 10 times faster than at any other time in the past 50 million years.

Ocean acidification inhibits precipitation of calcium carbonate in the water, making scarce the material shellfish and coral require to build their shells and skeletons. Organisms predicted to suffer from ocean acidification range from tiny marine snails to entire coral reefs, and many are considered "key links" in ocean ecosystems. If these key links fail to thrive, entire food webs may collapse.

"More acidic ocean waters will have broad and significant impacts on marine ecosystems, the services they provide, and the coastal economies which depend on them," Valauri-Orton wrote.

She noted that one of the best documented cases of acidification's effects is her home region in the Pacific Northwest. The oyster industry there is already struggling as larvae are no longer able to form their shells.

Oysters have not reproduced in the wild in the Northwest since 2006. Larvae must be raised in labs or shipped off to somewhere with less corrosive waters, such as Hawaii, before they can be placed in the waters of the Northwest. While most regions of the world have not experienced dangerously low oceanic pH yet, the problem is spreading quickly. Worldwide effects are expected by 2050.

Though she has no formal training in marine sciences, her journey has led her to become an expert on ocean acidification. "I found myself involved in the ultimate 'Fake it 'till you make it,' scenario," she admitted. "I was stumbling around in foreign places and figuring things out on my own."

At the conclusion of her Watson year, she returned to Seattle and conducted a number of talks, workshops and webinars for various non-profits interested in the health of the oceans. While home, she also contracted with the Suquamish Tribe, helping build a collection of curricular tools related to ocean acidification, and worked with Global Ocean Health, helping facilitate projects to build adaptive capacity against ocean acidification in vulnerable communities.

Valauri-Orton collecting Trocchus snails from a lagoon in the Cook Islands in an attempt to spawn them

One of the organizers of the State Department conference called a colleague about acidification, and Valauri-Orton's name came up. She got a formal invitation and jumped at the opportunity. "It means a lot to the field that the United States is focusing on ocean acidification at a conference like this" she said.

Valauri-Orton will present a five-minute talk illustrated with images of her travels, and then take questions. The event will be live streamed, so people watching worldwide can pose questions.

The conference announcement and preliminary program can be found on the Our Ocean 2014 website. 

Valauri-Orton was moving to Washington, D.C., to accept an internship when she received the invitation to speak at the conference. And while she hasn't yet secured a permanent position in her field, she's not worried. Experience has shown her that things will be fine as long as she knows her subject, and follows her heart.