Alaskans should heed new economic warnings of ocean acidification

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
OPINION: A new study about the economic impact of ocean acidification in Alaska should alarm Alaskans whether they depend directly on ocean resources or not. Pictured: Salmon drying in the sun near Bethel. Bob Hallinen photo

A new study was released last week essentially saying something Alaskans have been hearing for quite a while -- the acidity levels in Alaska’s fish-rich waters pose an increasingly high danger to the fish and shellfish populations, and therefore, those Alaskans who depend on the oceans for their income and their subsistence stores.

The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and looked at the economic impacts likely to occur in various regions of Alaska as a result of increasing vulnerability of shellfish and the species that depend on shellfish, such as salmon, who eat pteropods, tiny shell-bearing creatures. Naturally, the hardest hit regions were along the coastline of Alaska. And because the economic impacts are predicted to be so widespread -- 29 population centers were identified as likely to be hit hard by the impacts of ocean acidification -- hub cities like Anchorage were likely to suffer as well. The study pointed out Alaska’s widespread dependence on the sea for its livelihood. Mess with the sea, and Alaskans are in trouble, essentially.

Ocean acidification, apparently, works in much the same way as climate change -- Alaska and other Arctic regions bear the brunt of the rest of the world’s pollution as well as our own. In the case of climate change, the impacts are more magnified in Alaska than other areas of the world, though no region is unchanged by rapidly changing weather patterns and the impacts of melting Arctic sea ice.

With ocean acidification, Alaska waters are at the end of an “ocean conveyer belt,” one of the scientists involved in the study said. Many of the world’s ocean currents end their cycles in Alaska, and deposit carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere. And since our waters are colder than everyone else’s, they can absorb more carbon dioxide.

The problem with reports like this is that there are so many of them and they all have such ambiguous doom-and-gloom predictions that it can leave a reader numb. What should we focus our energy on -- melting permafrost that leaves huge craters in Russia, coastal erosion that causes communities to erode away storm after storm, or the likelihood that our children and grandchildren may not be able to depend on the ocean the way we have.

The answer? We need to pay attention to all of it, even though the news is not good. This is the reality of life in Alaska -- we are on the front lines of a changing planet, and we have a responsibility to tell the world what is happening here.

We cannot feign ignorance as runs of fish disappear with little scientific explanation, or as storms change the landscape and weather patterns fluctuate dramatically. Any of those things as an isolated incident can be explained as the randomness of the planet, but as more and more things happen that Elders have never seen before, and more and more individuals, families, and communities are unable to continue living as they have for hundreds of years, we have an obligation to speak up. Because the changes we are seeing now are a glimpse into the impacts the rest of the world will see in decades to come.

But if Alaskans are going to speak up for the health and importance of their waters and the fish that swim in them, they may have to do so without the help of their state administration. Gov. Sean Parnell announced last week that he was appointing as his top fisheries adviser a man with a background not in fish like his predecessors but in politics and public relations.

Ben Mohr was the spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, promoting the controversial proposed Pebble Mine, which has been the subject of one of the most unified opposition efforts Alaska has seen since the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Mohr’s most recent job was as campaign manager for Dan Sullivan’s run for U.S. Senate -- not exactly the resume most Alaskans involved in the fish world would likely pick for their main fisheries representative, given the number of extremely fish-savvy people there are in Alaska. While casting stones at Parnell seems to be a popular pastime at the moment, those paying attention might note that this new face guiding fish decisions for our state administration during a time when a strong voice is needed may not be in the fishing world’s favor.

While this latest report can be viewed as another discouraging report about Alaska’s future, it can also be considered as it was intended -- a tool for Alaskans to use to get motivated and respond to the changes in their environment and the economic impacts likely to come from them. And while the state administration may not be much help in this effort, Alaskans -- particularly those in the fishing world -- are more than capable of standing up for themselves and drawing attention to a problem that needs it.

This is the reality of life in Alaska -- we are the front lines of a changing planet, and we have a responsibility to tell the world about what is happening here.

Carey Restino is editor of The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary first appeared.

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, e-mail commentary(at)