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Alaska fisheries and communities at risk from ocean acidification, study shows

Ocean acidification is driving changes in waters vital to Alaska’s valuable commercial fisheries and subsistence way of life, according to new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-led research published online in Progress in Oceanography.

Many of Alaska’s nutritionally and economically valuable marine fisheries are located in waters that are already experiencing ocean acidification, and will see more in the near future, the study shows. Communities in southeast and southwest Alaska face the highest risk from ocean acidification because they rely heavily on fisheries that are expected to be most affected by ocean acidification, and have underlying factors that make those communities more vulnerable, such as lower incomes and fewer employment opportunities.

The term “ocean acidification” describes the process of ocean water becoming more acidic as a result of absorbing nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human sources. This change in ocean chemistry is affecting marine life, particularly the ability of shellfish, corals and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain to build skeletons or shells.

Studies show that red king crab and tanner crab, two important Alaskan fisheries, grow more slowly and don’t survive as well in more acidic waters. Alaska’s coastal waters are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because of cold water that can absorb more carbon dioxide, and unique ocean circulation patterns, which bring naturally acidic deep ocean waters to the surface, according to the NOAA.

“We went beyond the traditional approach of looking at dollars lost or species impacted; we know these fisheries are lifelines for native communities and what we’ve learned will help them adapt to a changing ocean environment,” said Jeremy Mathis, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, and the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Ocean Acidification Research Center.

The research presented in the new study examines the potential effects on a state where the fishing industry supports over 100,000 jobs and generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue and helps maintain the U.S. balance of trade in the global economy.

Additionally, approximately 120,000 people or roughly 17 percent of Alaskans rely on subsistence fisheries for most, if not all of their dietary protein. Fishery-related tourism also brings in $300 million annually.

While acknowledging that the most important way to address ocean acidification is by reducing carbon dioxide emissions globally, the research shows that by examining all the factors that contribute to risk, more opportunities can be found to prevent harm to human communities at a local level. Decision-makers can address socioeconomic factors that lower the ability of people and communities to adapt to environmental change, such as low incomes, poor nutrition, lack of educational attainment and lack of diverse employment opportunities, the NOAA says. NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and the state of Alaska are also developing tools to help industry adapt to increasing acidity.

The new study is the first published research by the Synthesis of Arctic Research program, which is supported by an inter-agency agreement between NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Alaska Region.

 

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