Commentary: Ocean acidification: invisible now, soon to become obvious

As I look out on Kachemak Bay, I know that the waters of the Bay, Cook Inlet, and the Gulf of Alaska are teeming with organisms that nourish the fish that I depend on to make a living and to fill my freezer.

Some days, the water is too rough to go fishing, but still, I know the fish are there waiting for when I can go. For more than 30 years, my family and I have enjoyed some of the most sought-after and prized foods in the world, harvested right at our doorsteps. It is only in the last five years that I have learned that the very food web that supports this luxury and sustenance is under attack from a silent killer.

Ocean acidification is the result of the ocean absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As the world population has increased, so has the use and demand of energy that is produced by many different methods and fuels. Most of these methods result in the emission of carbon in the atmosphere. As the ocean absorbs this carbon dioxide, the acidity in seawater is increased and this reduces the availability of calcium carbonate minerals, which are the building blocks of shells and skeletons for many marine organisms.

As I drove off the Homer Spit the other day, I decided to stop by the oyster co-op store to purchase a few oysters for dinner. The array of shellfish there is impressive and the availability of fresh oysters is one of the huge benefits that add to our quality of life.

Although the supply of these gems is consistent and normally abundant, there have been incidents of seed shortages and scientists in Puget Sound have found that as the pH of seawater drops, sea urchin larvae change shape, squid metabolisms slow, some brittle stars and barnacles begin to die, and the shells of oyster larvae start dissolving while they form. Indeed, it is this very reason that holds back this industry that sometimes cannot fill all the orders that come in. It is hoped that funding can be gained to develop their own source of seed.

So what do we do? We all burn fuel for heat and transportation. Most of us use a large amount of fuel to make a living. Well, we can use what we do more efficiently and prudently. We can support those that are trying to determine the extent of the acidification.

Without good, sound science, how can we hope to manage our fisheries in a sustainable manner? Good science requires monitoring, and although there is some going on in Alaska, the effort, though of very high quality, needs to be expanded.

Dr. Jeremy Mathis has been running the Ocean Acidification Research Center out of the School of Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for several years and is developing a baseline for the high Arctic. The funds have come from National Science Foundation money of which Alaska only received 5 percent of the total allotted for our nation. This is a start, but given the fact that Alaska has eight of the top 20 seafood-producing ports in America, it seems inadequate.

What we need is a program that will support buoys throughout the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The program was proposed by UAF and submitted to the governor in the Board of Regent’s request. The governor pulled the funding out and sent his capital budget to the Legislature without this important piece.

The fishing community in Alaska is getting shortchanged of an important piece of fisheries forecasting. This baseline would help the state Department of Fish and Game, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, and the International Pacific Halibut Commission do their work. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to acquire this knowledge.

There is an effort to restore these funds going on in Juneau right now. The capital budget is in the Senate Finance Committee, and the chairs and members of the committee should be contacted and told we need to put this research funding back into the budget.

In addition to this request, we should ask Rep. Paul Seaton to schedule hearings in the House Resources Committee on HJR 10, which is a resolution supporting expanded research into ocean acidification in Alaska.

There is a lot to learn on this subject and I want to know more about what is going on in my backyard. I want to be able to pass on the joy of clams, crab and oysters on to my grandchildren. In addition to these shellfish wonders, I want to assure healthy salmon runs for generations.

The food chain that supports our world-class salmon runs depends on the very smallest of shell-making organisms, the pteropod. I want to know more, don’t you? Make the call. Ask your representatives in Juneau to do the right thing and support this expanded research of ocean acidification. Call your local legislative information office if you need more info on how to contact your legislators.

Pete Wedin owns and operates a salmon and halibut charter fishing boat. He has four grandchildren who love to fish, with another on the way.

Pete Wedin, Alaska Journal of Commerce, 5 April 2012. Article.

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