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My Turn: Sea otters and shellfish

Posted: March 15, 2013 - 12:10am

The fate of the shellfish industry in Southeast Alaska appears to be sealed. This fate has comparatively little to do with overfishing or the return of sea otters. It has to do with CO2 and the fact that about 25 percent of CO2, which comes mostly from coal-fired power generation and fossil fueled powered vehicles, gets absorbed by the ocean, resulting in an increase in ocean acidity. This increase negatively affects the calcification process used by shellfish to make shells. Since there has been no real effort to address this issue by only a few governments in the world, it is probably already too late to save the shellfish industry. The question is when we will lose shellfish, and that is something over which we do have some limited control.

The rate of ocean acidification can be slowed down by creating a greater opportunity for more kelp to grow. Kelp is a plant that absorbs CO2 in the ocean, just as trees do on land. Kelp growth can be increased by reducing the number of sea urchins that consume kelp, effectively turning kelp forests into deserts.

The best way to control sea urchins is to restore the ecosystem by allowing sea otters to re-establish themselves and eat sea urchins, thus returning the kelp forests to their natural levels. This will allow the kelp to absorb CO2, thus reducing the rate of ocean acidification - and thereby prolonging the shellfish industry in Southeast Alaska.

No one alive has ever known what the nearshore marine ecosystem in Southeast Alaska looked like before the sea otter was driven almost to extinction by the Russian fur trade, and, in fact, the shellfish industry has actually been living in an artificially elevated market since that time.

Senator Stedman’s proposal to initiate predator control on sea otters via a bounty will only speed up the demise of the shellfish industry, and while the implementation of a bounty may result in some short-term gains for some user groups, the shellfish industry will just go away more quickly with predator control than without it.

There is also reliable scientific information suggesting that herring production — and therefore salmon production — will increase as the kelp forests return.

Returning our nearshore marine ecosystem to its natural state is a win for all of us.

• Brown is the owner of Weather Permitting Alaska LLC, which is an environmental investment business. Less than 2 percent of its assets are in a local whale watching business.

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