New research on ocean acidity raises red flags for Alaskans

Fishing families and businesses across Alaska are veterans at keeping an eye out for change — day-to-day and season-to-season. The largest single employer in the state of Alaska, and a food source for millions, the successes of Alaskan seafood harvests rise and fall with a dynamic marine food web. New research is shedding light on a big change within that system — ocean acidification — and Alaska’s salmon fishermen are watching closely.

Researchers from NOAA and the University of Washington have found that wild salmon runs may be affected by rising ocean acidity — a well documented global trend that is particularly pronounced in the cold-water, carbon-rich waters off Alaska’s vast coastline.

The ocean naturally absorbs carbon dioxide, which triggers a chemical reaction increasing acidity. This process has accelerated rapidly in recent years, with varying effects on marine life. Most recently, researchers found that increased acidity negatively impacts salmon’s smelling ability, which they rely on for a variety of essential functions, including avoiding predators.

United Fishermen of Alaska’s Salmon Habitat Information Program (SHIP) co-hosted a panel on ocean acidification at the November Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle, gathering experts to discuss acidification and fisheries. This was in direct response to fishermen’s concerns, voiced through a 2016 UFA survey on salmon habitat that polled more than 500 Alaska fishermen. The second highest habitat concern fishermen noted was climate-related changes and impacts, including ocean acidification. Research developments since that survey continue to raise red flags for fishermen around the world, and the recent links to salmon have hit home in the North Pacific.

For the thousands of Alaskans dependent on salmon for food and income, as well as countless chefs, grocers and other consumers across the globe, this is sobering news. Alaska’s salmon fishermen, who add almost 33,000 full-time equivalent national jobs and $1.7 billion in national labor income, are accustomed to the natural ebb and flow of returning salmon. Yet, we are deeply concerned about state and national implications of an ecosystem shift that could impact such fundamental functions on a species wide level. This is why we need to know more about what is happening within our ocean’s chemistry — what can we expect as it continues to absorb carbon dioxide, what impacts marine species are likely to face in the coming years, and how fishermen can adapt to them.

This developing research field has provided valuable information about impacts on a wide variety of species, including reduced growth and increased mortality in Alaskan crab species, shellfish and essential food web elements like pteropods. Researchers are working hard to develop a baseline of ocean acidity data to better monitor changes but for now, we are all left with more questions than answers. Now more than ever we need the information that scientific research provides, so that we can better prepare for our fishing futures in Alaska.

Jerry McCune, Anchorage Daily News, 3 January 2018. Article.

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