A new federal study says communities dotting coastal regions of Southeast and Southwest Alaska will face the highest risk from ocean acidification, because they rely on fisheries expected to be most affected by such chemical changes in the ocean.
The study, “Ocean Acidification Risk Assessment for Alaska’s Fishery Sector, published July 29 in the periodical Progress in Oceanography, says these coastal communities are especially vulnerable because they rely on fishery harvests for nutrition and income, and, among other factors, they lack alternative employment.
The term “ocean acidification” refers to the process of ocean water becoming more acidic as a result of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Such changes are affecting marine life, particularly the ability of shellfish, corals and small marine critters in the early stages of the food chain to build skeletons or shells.
Studies show that red king crab and tanner crab grow more slowly and don’t survive as well in more acidic waters, and Alaska’s coastal waters are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because of cold water, which can absorb more carbon dioxide, and unique ocean circulation patters, which bring naturally acidic deep ocean waters to the surface.
“Prior studies of the potential impacts of ocean acidification have focused only on direct economic losses from commercial harvests,” said Sarah Cooley, co-lead of the study and science outreach manager at Ocean Conservancy. “Our research shows much greater threats to rural communities in Alaska related to their food security, but there are solutions that the state can implement today to help the boroughs weather the changes.”
The study was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, the state of Alaska, and The Energy Foundation.
“The people of coastal Alaska, who have always looked to the sea for sustenance and prosperity, will be most affected,” said Steve Colt, a co-author of the study and economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “But all Alaskans need to understand how and where ocean acidification threatens our marine resources so that we can work together to address the challenges and maintain healthy and productive coastal communities.”
The study recommends that residents and stakeholders in vulnerable regions prepare for these environmental challengers and develop response strategies that incorporate community values and needs. “This research allows planners to think creatively about ways to help coastal communities withstand environmental change,” Cooley said.
Colt said he hopes teams of scientists, like those who collaborated on this study, will continue to form up to combine their data. “I would hope that NOAA would take it upon itself to be a leader in forming these kinds of teams and that the university would step up to the plate as well.