Alaska shellfish hatcheries endangered by ocean acidification, study says

Alaska's first shellfish hatcheries could be its last, given the impact of growing ocean acidification, according to a new report published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The research -- by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Alaska and a shellfish hatchery -- found that in 25 years, Alaska's coastal waters may not be able to support shellfish hatcheries unless costly new systems are put in place.

Ocean acidification is the result of waters absorbing more carbon dioxide and it can have significant effects on shellfish like oysters and clams, which need calcium carbonate minerals to build their shells. When the ocean is more acidic, the water is corrosive to those minerals.

In Alaska, it's not simply a factor of human-emitted CO2, but also the impacts of melting glaciers, the movement of deep waters that hold more carbon, and decomposition of plant life. On top of that, cold waters generally absorb more carbon dioxide, according to NOAA.

Six in-state shellfish hatcheries and nurseries are certified by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as seed producers for oysters and clams.

Scientists from NOAA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks teamed with the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward to test seawater chemistry for 10 months in 2013 and 2014 and measure its effects on shellfish seeds produced there.

Already, ocean acidification has had impacts on shellfish industries in the Pacific Northwest, and that's why Alutiiq Pride wanted to participate in the study, said Jeff Hetrick, the company's owner. "The results have been alarming," Hetrick said.

The ocean off Seward is ripe for young shellfish to prosper for five months in spring and summer, according to NOAA. But that five-month window could shrink to nothing by 2040 in some scenarios, the report found.

Unless the hatchery installed costly controls that modified the ocean waters coming into the facility, there could be no more Alaska shellfish hatcheries.

Alutiiq Pride has received hundreds of thousands of federal and state dollars in its quest to grow the state's hatchery businesses, particularly considering increasing difficulties faced by hatcheries from the Outside.

Elsewhere, in Ketchikan, OceansAlaska runs a nonprofit shellfish hatchery aimed at supporting the in-state industry.

The scientists say they need to keep tracking the oceans if they want to understand ocean acidification. But "we've come a long way in our ability to monitor ocean acidification," said Wiley Evans of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the lead scientist on the project.

Later this year, monitoring will continue at Alutiiq Pride and expand to at least one other site, NOAA said.

In Washington, D.C., some lawmakers have been angling to get NOAA more money to investigate ocean acidification, including Rep. Don Young. Ocean acidification threatens a $350 billion industry in the U.S., they say.

Last month, Young lauded a new bill to extend NOAA's funding to research ocean acidification -- part of a project ongoing since 2009. He pointed to the efforts at UAF in a push to get the funding reauthorized.

"This research has increased our understanding of where changes are occurring, how they vary by region and the ways they impact marine life, particularly shellfish. Alaska's shellfish industry has significantly benefited from this important NOAA research, which has allowed the industry to mitigate and adapt to our changing oceans," Young said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.