Alaska: Ocean acidification puts livelihoods at risk

Ocean acidification will endanger the livelihoods of communities located in southeast and southwest Alaska, according to new NOAA-led study published in Progress in Oceanography.

This interdisciplinary study, entitled ‘Ocean acidification risk assessment for Alaska’s fishery sector,’ shows that many of Alaska’s marine fisheries are located in waters that are already experiencing ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is the lowering of ocean pH due to increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Since pre-industrial times, the surface ocean pH has reportedly fallen by 0.1 pH units. This change represents approximately a 30 percent increase in acidity. Future predictions indicate that the oceans will continue to absorb carbon dioxide and as a result will become even more acidic.

Sarah Cooley, co-lead author and Science Outreach Manager at Ocean Conservancy, told MediaGlobal News that Alaska’s coastal waters are especially vulnerable.

North Alaskan crab fisheries are among those most at risk from ocean acidification.

North Alaskan crab fisheries are among those most at risk from ocean acidification.
Photo credit: Flickr/©Boris Kasimov

“Alaska’s waters are naturally extremely cold and rich in carbon dioxide because of their high latitude and nearby ocean circulation,” Cooley explained.

“This means that they can take up only a little more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before they will dissolve calcium carbonate minerals. This is worrisome because animals like clams, scallops, oysters, and crabs that live in Alaska waters harden their shells with calcium carbonate.”

As such this increase in acidity will particularly impact the state’s shellfish fisheries.

Previous studies corroborate Cooley’s observations and have shown that red king crab and tanner crab, two important species caught commercially in Alaska, grow more slowly and don’t survive well in high acidic water.

Cooley and her colleagues used a risk assessment framework based on the one developed by the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to “analyze earth-system global ocean model hindcasts and projections of ocean chemistry, fisheries harvest data, and demographic information.” The research team decided to go beyond the traditional approach of looking at financial losses or species affected to do a socio-economic study designed to examine the wider economic impact. Without neglecting the oceanographic side, they specifically highlighted how social factors contribute to the total picture of risk.

Cooley told MediaGlobal News that it was the challenge of making non-scientists care about changing ocean chemistry that originally led her to consider economic and social impacts of global ocean change in her research.

“Showing how global change could alter people’s relationship to natural resources they care about is a great way to help them see how global change is actually very local too, in the way it affects all of us” she added.

The report identifies a number of factors that lower the adaptive capacity of some fishing communities in southeast and southwest Alaska. Low income, low nutritional status, a lack of industrial diversity, and low educational attainment create vulnerability to many environmental and social problems beyond oceanic acidification. Recognizing and addressing them would benefit everyone, according to the authors.

Co-author and Professor of Economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Steve Colt pointed out that formulating and implementing sustainable solutions for Alaska’s deep rooted problems is quite a challenge.

“Building economic diversity is a long and difficult process,” he told MediaGlobal News. “Some important steps toward that end might include excellent education, building infrastructure to enable tourism or shipment of local products, reducing the high cost of energy by developing renewable sources such as wind or hydro.”

Colt echoed some basic ideas that others have been working on for some time.

“Raising incomes could be accomplished through a targeted effort to provide more jobs and job training to local people,” he explained.

“This kind of effort would require re-directing petroleum revenues away from building multi-billion dollar dams and gas pipelines and toward teachers, health aides, local road maintenance, weatherization of houses, and other things that use local labor and local skills in small communities.”

Alaska’s fishing industry is big business and is one of the state’s top export commodities. Annually it brings in over 5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish worth over $3 billion. It supports over 100,000 jobs and the vast fishery resources are of tremendous importance to the economies of the state but also of the whole nation. The potential effects of ocean acidification could devastate this sector, making this problem not just ecological, but also economic.

To avoid the demise of fishing communities in southeast and southwest Alaska, the report recommends that members of these communities brace and prepare themselves for this environmental challenge by building response strategies.

Elke Weesjes, Media Global News, 16 August 2014. Article.

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