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Southeast fisheries investigate, anticipate ocean acidification

Posted: March 25, 2012 - 12:10am

Will the carbon output of a growing world economy transform the oceans into an environment that — thanks to basic chemistry — is hostile to Alaska’s famed salmon? Or will Alaskans find ways to mitigate the expected drop in ocean pH?

Ocean acidification coincides with certain mass extinction events in the past, according to Jeremy Mathis, professor of chemical oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Fishers, shellfish grower and harvesters and non-profit organizations have met at recent roundtable meetings to discuss ocean acidification in Alaska.

Anthropologist Rachel Donkersloot is releasing a report on ocean acidification and these roundtable meetings. She conducted the study as fisheries program director of the Coastal Voices on Ocean Acidification Project for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

Donkersloot reported ocean acidification scientists know enough to know current increases in carbon in the ocean have an affect on the food web that sustains Alaska’s fisheries, but more research is needed before they’ll know the effects on the fisheries themselves.

While communities are not panicked about acidification, “there is growing alarm,” Donkersloot said.

Part of the impetus for the Marine Conservation Council’s report is the National Climate Assessment, held in Washington, D.C. every four years. Alaska is its own region and its assessment adds to other regions in the nationwide assessment.

The marine conservation council sponsored meetings in Homer, Kodiak and Dillingham in December and January.

It invited speakers like UAF’s Jeremy Mathis to speak with concerned locals, fishers and shellfish growers about ocean pH. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Director Bob Foy discussed acidification’s affect on crab.

Communities are not panicked about acidification, they are concerned and curious, Donkersloot said.

“It is concerning, Donkersloot said. “What we do know is that it has impacts on habitat and food web. We don’t yet have specific info of how it will affect fisheries.”

This underscores a real need for basic research, she said.

The absorption of carbon lowers the ocean's pH, increasing its acidity. This is particularly true in colder waters. As carbon emissions have increased over the past 150 years, ocean pH has dropped to a lower level than it has been in as many as 20 million years, according to UAF's website. An acidic environment is detrimental to the development of sea creatures with calcium shells — including some of the favorite food of Alaska's salmon.

However, how a drop in ocean pH may affect Alaska's fisheries is still unknown.

“We lack the definitive answers that we need,” Donkersloot said. However, she said, “there is a lot of consensus — we can’t wait until we feel the impacts of ocean acidification before we start addressing it,” she said.

Public awareness of ocean acidification is gaining ground, Donkersloot said. Good turnout at the roundtable meetings showed interest, she said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, introduced a joint resolution supporting research to examine the effects of acidification in Alaska.

House Joint Resolution 10 is sponsored by Reps. Kerttula, Bob Miller, D-Fairbanks, and Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks. The bill calls for support of expanded research on the effects of ocean acidification.

The bill has comes with a zero fiscal note, but it doesn’t mean the study of ocean acidification is free.

Donkersloot said public interest is being turned toward getting $2.7 million ocean acidification research by the University of Alaska put back into Gov. Sean Parnell’s fiscal year 2013 capital budget, Donkersloot said.

The funding would do three things, Donkersloot said. The first is increase monitoring, Thought there are a few monitoring sites, in terms of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, scientists need more research, she said. This data “helps us manage our fisheries better,” Donkersloot said.

Funding would also help “develop robust bio-economic models to understand costs of ocean acidification for Alaska’s fisheries,” Donkersloot said.

The third objective is to develop cooperative research programs with fishers and shellfish growers and harvesters. An example is fishing vessels using instruments to collect water samples.

“There is a knowledge sharing component to it,” Donkersloot said.

Donkersloot grew up in Naknek. She finished her Ph.D in anthropology at the University of British Columbia and was looking for a way to return to Alaska when the Council commissioned the report. Donkersloot said she is not an expert in ocean acidification. Her focus is on bring people together.

The roundtable meetings have shown a desire by the shellfish and seafood industry to help research and advocate, Donkersloot said.

Barbara Morgan is research and training specialist for OceansAlaska, a shellfish Alaska research facility and aquarium in Southeast Alaska. Her facility is supporting UAF and the Alaska Ocean Observing System “in their request for funding from the state of Alaska for the ocean acidification buoys needed for expanded monitoring,” Morgan said.

“We see this work as necessary to the sustainability of fisheries, including mariculture, in Alaska,” Morgan said. “OceansAlaska is willing to provide space at our facility to house equipment for monitoring of ocean acidification. We will work with both AOOS and UAF to conduct this monitoring if funding is approved.”

Donkersloot said some complacency comes because ocean acidification is not a tangible threat to a lot of members of the seafood industry. However, shellfish growers have already been impacted by OA, she said. Young oyster spat are particularly susceptible to a drop in pH. Growers may grow spat in controlled environments as a mitigation measure.

Donkersloot said she found Alaskans place acidification among the many things people have to worry about. “There is concern and curiosity but there is not outright alarm,” she said.

For more information visit www.akmarine.org.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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