Fish factor: unknowns remain on OA threat to salmon

Alaskans saw salmon die offs last summer across the state when water temperatures soared into the mid-70s to above 80 degrees in some regions. But what about threats to salmon from the accompanying global gorilla – increased acidity?

It’s a shock to learn that while extensive studies for years have been underway by Alaska scientists on impacts to major fish and shellfish stocks, there’s been none done in Alaska for salmon. In fact, only two lab studies have been done on Alaska salmon, both out of state, which showed acidity impairs coho salmon’s sense of smell and slows pink salmon growth rates. Other impacts remain unknown.

That’s changing with a federally funded, multi-year, collaborative project underway with Alaska’s universities and the Alaska Ocean Observing System.

“We don’t really have concrete evidence that it’s already affecting our salmon fisheries. But ocean acidification (OA) is certainly a larger, further down the line risk that’s going to compound with all the other changes that are currently occurring. It is certainly a risk we want to look at ahead of time,” said Toby Schwoerer, an economist with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska/Anchorage.

Schwoerer is part of a team that is formally evaluating the risks of OA to Gulf of Alaska salmon in lab tests and statistical models, and assessing responses needed to plan and adapt.
“The better we can prepare for ocean change, the better we’re going to end up managing our resources which are going to need to adapt to rapid ocean change,” he said, adding that Alaska’s salmon management system also will need to adapt.

“We have some of the best salmon management practices in the world, but the question is, will they be the best practices in the future?” Schwoerer emphasized.

“With the changing ocean environment that we are witnessing all around us, whether it be changes in the Gulf of Alaska, the collapse of cod for fishermen in Kodiak, or fish appearing in different locations up in the Bering Sea and the loss of sea ice, I think these changes urge us to think outside the box,” he added. “What is going to be next for our current management systems? We’ve got to be resilient as a salmon system to deal with these changes. That’s the overarching question we’re trying to address.”

The OA salmon project, which began in 2018 and runs through 2021, also points out that Alaska’s salmon fleets are contributing to the problem. Increased acidity stems from ocean absorption of carbon dioxide emissions caused primarily by burning of fossil fuels, which power the fishing fleets.

“There is innovation in terms of refrigeration, of vessels becoming larger with more capacity to hold salmon but overall, we haven’t really seen much innovation in terms of the way we catch salmon,” he explained. “What we have seen is we have the largest co2 emissions in the fishery, because average horsepower throughout the entire salmon fleet has doubled simply because of the way we manage the fishery — it’s still a race for fish.”

VHF update
Help is on the way for the thousands of mariners who for months have been out of touch with the Coast Guard in case of an emergency. Calls on VHF radio Channel 16, the international distress frequency, are not being received by Coast Guard communication centers. Other mariners in range can hear and relay a VHF message, but the Coast Guard cannot.

Channel 16 is akin to calling 911, said Ed Page, a retired Coast Guard officer who runs the Marine Exchange of Alaska. “I don’t know how many people would be that comfortable if suddenly the 911 system went down for months on end, that’s kind of what we have here,” Page told KBBI in Homer.

The problem stems from outages at nearly one third of Alaska’s old, far flung, 34 VHF towers. The outages affect regions near Homer, the Barren Islands, Chugach Islands, Kachemak Bay, Southern Cook Inlet, Kennedy Entrance, Cape Gull, Northwestern Afognak Island, Cape Douglas and Shelikof Strait.

VHF towers have been located in Alaska for decades on remote mountain tops and work off of a five-mile line of sight.

“There’s a number of factors that can cause a radio tower to go down,” said Coast Guard Public Information Officer Lieutenant Scott McCann. “The solar panels are pretty reliable but they also run on diesel generators which can go down. They have battery banks which can go down. The huts and towers can be compromised. The radio antennas on the towers can have issues. Some of them have parts that are so old they’re no longer made anymore. And in order to fly the helicopters up to the top of the mountain, they have to be able to see the mountain,” he told the Homer radio station.

A new service company has been hired to fix the outages, according to Coast Alaska. Silver Mountain Construction, a Palmer-based company owned by Cook Inlet Region, Inc.(CIRI), was awarded an $8.5 million contract to take over servicing the sites. It replaces Lynxnet LLC, a Virginia-based company owned by NANA Regional Corporation of Kotzebue whose contract was not renewed last month.

The VHF tower fixers are prioritizing the repairs, Lyle Kessler, External Affairs Officer for the Seventeenth District, told KMXT in Kodiak.

“They can’t go out and fix all the sites at once, so we’re working with a contractor to triage, saying get to these sites first, if you can,” he said. “We will also be working towards a longer-term solution of replacing the power generation at these sites as well.”

Meanwhile, Kessler advised all mariners to have back up plans.

“If you’re in an area where you have cell phone reception, you can call command centers if you need help from the Coast Guard. If you have satellite communications, you can call those numbers. Or if you’re in distress, activate your EPIRB or use your Inreach device or other means of communication,” he said, adding, “Always file a float plan with someone, so that if you don’t come back when you’re expected, they can let us know.”

Fish trends
Each year American market watchers predict eating trends that are making a splash and most say 2020 and beyond bode well for seafood.

A big mover is that more Americans are seeking more healthy eating choices, and many also continue to shift to sustainable seafood choices. Eating Well magazine listed sustainable seafood as a top trend with both consumers and chefs.

A trends overview by SeafoodSource shows that plant-based foods are booming, and the category jumped by 31 percent over the past two year into a $4.5 billion industry at the national retail level – 11 percent in just the past year. Some worry that vegetarian products labeled as salmon or ‘finless fish’ will confuse buyers even more.

Grain free and alternative breading for seafood made the top 10 trends at Whole Foods markets.

Whole Foods predicts foods for kids will include more “adventurous” options, such as non-breaded salmon sticks and Washington, DC-based Blue Circle’s Happy Fish, featuring fish-shaped frozen salmon from Norway and Atlantic cod patties.

So called “fresh snacks” are becoming a rage, such as pickled vegetables and drinkable soups. For seafood, Bellingham, Washington-based Trans-Ocean, owned by Maruha Nichiro of Japan has launched three-ounce packages of Simply Surimi Seafood Snackers made from Alaska pollock.

Most food purveyors agree that Alaska seafood provides an appealing combination to customers including well managed fisheries, clean waters, and support of small businesses and fishing jobs.

Welch L., The Cordova Times, 21 January 2020. Article.

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