Thanks to a nearly $3 million show of support from the state, high tech buoys will soon be measuring ocean acidity levels year round, and Alaska fishermen will play an important role in the research.
Basic chemistry proves that ocean waters are becoming more corrosive and it is happening faster in colder waters. The acidity, caused by increasing carbon dioxide emissions, can prevent shells from forming on crabs or oysters and tiny shrimplike organisms essential to fish diets.
Alaska's monitoring project will allow scientists to develop a "sensitivity index" for the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and the Arctic and key species in the regions.
"By doing that we will get an idea of which regions are the most vulnerable," said Dr. Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer and director of the Ocean Acidification Research Center at UAF. "After that, we will be able to start modeling out some scenarios using our ocean observations combined with subsistence and economic data -- where if there was a disruption in a certain species, we could quantify those costs."
"We can communicate with stakeholders and policy makers using numbers instead of in terms of pH levels and saturate rates," he added.
Mathis and his team will begin ordering and building the buoy equipment next month with deployment planned for March. The fully loaded buoys each come at a price tag of about $300,000, or "roughly the price of one 10-day research cruise." The buoys will be located in Southeast, Resurrection Bay off Seward, Kodiak, and the Bering Sea.
"That buoy sits about 100 miles west of Bristol Bay, right in the middle of the big crab fishery. So between those four sites we are able to monitor where the stakeholders and the fisheries are, and ultimately we will be able to answer some of those ecosystem questions," Mathis said.
The OA research center will contract with fishermen and vessels for buoy deployments and maintenance, as well as for collecting water samples to expand the ocean chemistry data base.
"We hope to be able to utilize the fleets in these different locations, rather than charter a research vessel from somewhere else," Mathis said, adding that he gets a dozen calls a week from fishermen and others offering to collaborate on OA-related research.
He said he was amazed at how quickly Alaskans have organized in support of expanding OA research and called the state money "a major victory for science this year."
"We are at the tip of the spear in terms of the impacts we are going to have and because of the fisheries we rely on. It is truly amazing to see the support at the grass roots level and have the Legislature and the governor step up and allow us to take the national lead on this," Mathis said.
The state will get a good return on its investment. By putting up the seed money for the buoys, federal agencies such as NOAA and the National Science Foundation can partner with the project for the long term.
"It is a way to bring funds into the state. We will now be more competitive in bringing federal science dollars into Alaska and the university with a high return Over the next five years, my group alone will be able to bring in significantly more federal dollars than what the state has invested in it. But we would probably not have been able to do it if the initial investment had not been made."
One key species that appears to be dodging the corrosive ocean bullet is Alaska pollock. Based on the first multi-year studies, pollock seem to be unaffected by changes in ocean acidity levels.
"We didn't see dramatic declines in growth or death rates when we exposed them to the more acidic conditions," Mathis said. "We are hoping we can continue research to show that pollock might have some natural resiliency to changes in ocean conditions."
The report on pollock and ocean acidification is on its way to science journals.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact email@example.com.