Ocean acidification threatens Alaska fishing communities

Alaska communities dependent on fishing for income or subsistence are most vulnerable to the harm caused by ongoing changes in the ocean chemistry, according to a study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alaska Fairbanks published July 29 in the academic journal Progress in Oceanography.

Individual components of the final ocean acidification risk index for each census area. Image courtesy of Jeremy Mathis.

Ocean acidification is driving changes in waters vital to Alaska’s valuable commercial fisheries and subsistence way of life. Communities in Southeast and Southwest Alaska face the highest risk from the increasing acidity of ocean waters because of their heavy reliance on fisheries expected to be most affected by ocean acidification, coupled with additional underlying factors such as lower incomes and fewer employment opportunities.

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

crab fishing

Fishermen from Homer, Alaska haul in tanner crabs, one of the fisheries that research is showing may be affected by ocean acidification. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Mathis/NOAA

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 cold water can absorb more carbon dioxide, and unique ocean circulation patterns bring naturally acidic deep ocean waters to the surface.

In Alaska, 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.

The most important way to address ocean acidification is by reducing carbon dioxide emissions globally, but the study recommends that residents and stakeholders in vulnerable regions prepare for this environmental challenge 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,” said Sarah Cooley, co-lead author who was at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution while doing the research and is now science outreach manager at Ocean Conservancy, in Washington, D.C. “Adaptations can be tailored to address specific social and environmental weak points that exist in a community.”

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. NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and the state of Alaska are also developing tools to help industry adapt to increasing acidity.

The full article is available on the Progress in Oceanography website.

CONTACT: Sharice Walker, 907-474-7208, Public Information Officer, UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Science

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Jeremy Mathis, 206-526-4809, director, UAF Ocean Acidification Research Center

Ocean Acidification Diagram

An illustration of how ocean acidification affects marine life. Image courtesy of NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.

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