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A wake-up call in Alaska about ocean acidification and coastal communities

Jeremy T. Mathis,Steve Colt
OPINION: As ocean acidification emerges, it will affect Alaskans already at risk and coastal economies the most. The time to plan is now. Loren Holmes photo

A new study shows, for the first time, that ocean acidification is driving changes in waters vital to Alaska’s commercial fisheries and traditional subsistence way of life.

As one of our planet’s most under-recognized challenges, ocean acidification is emerging because the sea is absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. CO2 concentrations are now higher than at any time during the past 800,000 years, and the current rate of increase is likely unprecedented in history. Ocean acidification is literally causing a sea change, threatening the fundamental health of ocean and coastal waters from pole to pole. And, as the new study indicates, the implications for Alaska may be profound.

Led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Alaska scientists, the study stands out not just because of findings about the intensity of ocean acidification on Alaska’s marine life, but because it assessed potential risk to Alaskan communities. The study considered social impacts such as food security, subsistence, jobs and educational opportunities. Findings indicate that communities in Alaska’s southeast and southwest regions, those that are among the most important contributors to commercial and subsistence fisheries, are also the communities most at risk. Highly reliant on shellfish and salmon and other finfish, these communities have relatively lower income and employment options. Current changes in ocean chemistry and rising CO2 levels mean their vulnerability will only grow in the coming decades.

While more monitoring is needed to understand ocean acidification’s implications for marine life, we see the new study as a wake-up call because changing seawater chemistry can be destructive to the skeletons and shells of many species. Ocean acidification makes it more challenging to build and maintain shells and, in some instances, even causes them to dissolve. Harvested shellfish such as clams and scallops will likely suffer from ocean acidification, and studies show that both red king crab and Tanner crab species grow more slowly and die more often in high-CO2 waters. Risk to finfish may be lower but ocean acidification may cause changes that reduce their populations.

Of concern are Alaska’s vulnerable coastal economies and highly valued ways of life. Alaska’s fishing industry supports more than 100,000 jobs and generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue. About 120,000 Alaskans rely on subsistence fisheries for most, if not all, of their dietary protein. Fishery-related tourism brings in more than $300 million annually. Moreover, this state’s highly productive fisheries are critical to America’s global balance of trade. Alaska’s coastline, which is 50 percent greater than all of the rest of our nation’s coastline combined, produces about half of the total U.S. commercial catch. As with any investment, we have to understand the risks and vulnerabilities associated with our fisheries.

There is a shared urgency, in Alaska and globally, to understand more about these risks and what ocean acidification means for lives, livelihoods and communities and regional and national economies. Ocean acidification is a global phenomenon. But the effects on species, mostly negative so far, are local. The new study is one step toward fuller understanding. It is presented with the hope that its scientific insights will be considered in addressing emerging challenges to already at-risk Alaska communities.

Building resiliency in Alaska means continued, critical monitoring of near-shore regions and having informed local policies that, ultimately, are developed by communities themselves. For individual communities, losing a major fishery and essential subsistence can be a game-changer. As ocean acidification emerges, so can adaptive and mitigation strategies that recognize community values and educate the public about risks and elements to offset them. The challenge is to continue reaping the benefits while also safeguarding traditional and contemporary uses of Alaska’s and the world’s fragile, finite marine resources.

Jeremy T. Mathis, Ph.D., is an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. Steve Colt, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. This editorial is drawn from a study published July 29 in the scientific journal, "Progress in Oceanography."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.