Ocean Acidification: Invisible now, but not for long

Pete Wedin

As I look out on Kachemak Bay, I know that the waters of the Bay, Cook Inlet, and the Gulf of Alaska are teeming with organisms that nourish the fish that I depend on to make a living and to fill my freezer. Some days, the water is too rough to go fishing, but still, I know the fish are there waiting when I can go. For over 30 years, my family and I have enjoyed some of the most sought-after and prized foods in the world, harvested right at our doorsteps. It is only in the last five years that I have learned that the very food web that supports this luxury and sustenance is under attack from a silent killer.
Ocean acidification is the result of the ocean absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As the world population has increased, so has the use and demand of energy that is produced by many different methods and fuels. Most of these methods result in the emission of carbon in the atmosphere. As the ocean absorbs this carbon dioxide, the acidity in seawater is increased and this reduces the availability of calcium carbonate minerals, which are the building blocks of shells and skeletons for many marine organisms.
As I drove the Homer Spit the other day, I decided to stop by the oyster co-op store and purchase a few oysters for dinner. The array of shellfish there is impressive and the availability of fresh oysters is one of the huge benefits that add to our quality of life. Although the supply of these gems is consistent and normally abundant, there have been incidents of seed shortages. Scientists in Puget Sound have found that as the pH of seawater drops, sea urchin larvae change shape, squid metabolisms slow, some brittle stars and barnacles begin to die, and the shells of oyster larvae start dissolving while they form. Indeed, it is this very reason that holds back this industry so that sometimes they cannot fill all the orders that come in. It is hoped that funding can be gained to develop their own source of seed.
So what do we do? We all burn fuel for heat and transportation. Most of us use a large amount of fuel to make a living. Well, we can use what we do more efficiently and prudently. We can support those that are trying to determine the extent of the acidification. Without good, sound science, how can we hope to manage our fisheries in a sustainable manner? Good science requires monitoring, and although there is some going on in Alaska, the effort, though of very high quality, needs to be expanded. Dr. Jeremy Mathis has been running the Ocean Acidification Research Center out of the School of Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for several years and is developing a baseline for the high Arctic. The funds have come from National Science Foundation money of which Alaska only received 5 percent of the total allotted for our nation. This is a start, but given the fact that Alaska has eight of the top 20 seafood-producing ports in America, it seems inadequate.
What we need is a program that will support buoys throughout the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The program was proposed by UAF and submitted to the governor in the Regent’s Request. The governor pulled the funding out and sent his capital budget to the legislature without this important piece. The fishing community in Alaska is getting shortchanged of an important piece of fisheries forecasting. This baseline would help the Department of Fish and Game, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, and the International Pacific Halibut Commission do their work. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to acquire this knowledge.
There is an effort to restore these funds going on in Juneau right now. The capital budget is in the Senate Finance Committee and the chairs and members of the committee should be contacted and told we need to put this research funding back into the budget. In addition to this request, we should ask our Rep. Paul Seaton to schedule hearings in the House Resources Committee on HJR 10, which is a resolution supporting expanded research into ocean acidification in Alaska. There is a lot to learn on this subject and I want to know more about what is going on in my backyard. I want to be able to pass on the joy of clams, crab, and oysters on to my grandchildren. In addition to these shellfish wonders, I want to assure healthy salmon runs for generations. The food chain that supports our world-class salmon runs depends on the very smallest of shell-making organisms, the pteropod. I want to know more, don’t you? Make the call. Ask your representatives in Juneau to do the right thing and support this expanded research of ocean acidification. Call your local LIO if you need more info on how to contact your legislators.

Pete Wedin owns and operates a salmon and halibut charter fishing boat. He is a former Board member of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and has four grandchildren, with another on the way.

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Posted by on Mar 28th, 2012 and filed under Point of View. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Responses for “Ocean Acidification: Invisible now, but not for long”

  1. AlaskaHound says:

    You do realize that rain water is is acidic as measured between alkaline and acidic?
    Adding rain water and your normal non-salted runoff from land masses = acidic.
    The introduction of CO2 to saltwater dilutes the acidic brine content and in no way matches the addition of fresh rain water to the salty seas.
    The physical and mathematical calculations of bringing the seas to an acidic state is along these lines:
    Rain water component to increasing acidity: 96%
    CO2: <.3%
    Where do you get your information from?

    Cheers!

  2. Good article Pete and I hear you on the need to know more about what’s happening in our ocean due to rising CO2, temperatures, etc. Feel free to contact me if you need any help getting the word out, etc. I see you also get the attention of the deniers… they must have all climate-related keywords set in their Google alerts…

  3. Dr. Wiley Evans says:

    Hello Alaskahound: below are a few clarifying points for you. The cumulative oceanic anthropogenic CO2 sink since the industrial revolution is on the order of 1.2×1011 metric tons of C [Sabine et al., 2004], which has resulted in global pH and carbonate ion decreases near 30 and 16 percent, respectively [Orr et al., 2005]. The expression “ocean acidification” refers to the decrease in pH, which impacts metabolic processes in organisms [Gattuso and Hanssom, 2011]. The decrease in carbonate ion, however, negatively impacts shell-forming marine organisms because carbonate ion is an important building block for the mineral calcium carbonate. In short, the more CO2 added to seawater, the less carbonate ion present and the more difficult it will be for organisms to form shells.

    You make the good point that freshwater discharge from land is an important contributor to corrosive ocean conditions, however its contribution is limited in space and time. Freshwater is less dense than marine water, so the impact of freshwater is limited to the upper water column, and generally confined to near shore. A more substantial contributor, especially in terms of corrosive ocean conditions at depth where economically important species reside, is deep water moving up onto the Gulf of Alaska shelf from the open North Pacific. This water has very low pH and carbonate ion concentrations and its movement onto the shelf is governed by wind/atmospheric conditions over the year.

    The important point is that there are a variety of contributors to ocean acidification in the Gulf of Alaska that operate on distinct time and space scales. Therefore a moored observation network for monitoring ocean acidification would allow us to discern the impacts of each of these contributors to ocean acidification along our coast. From that understanding, predictions can be made as to how these conditions would change in the future that will aid in management decisions regarding our important marine resources in the Gulf of Alaska.

    Gattuso, J.-P., and L. Hanssom (Eds.) (2011), Ocean Acidification, 326 pp., Oxford University Press, Oxford.

    Orr, J. C., et al. (2005), Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms, Nature, 437, 681-686.

    Sabine, C. L., et al. (2004), The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2, Science, 305, 367-371.

  4. Bruce says:

    It is fishermen and shellfish farmers who will be taking the first economic hits as the pH of the oceans drop to levels not seen for 20 million years. Monitoring pH change and keeping biologically relivant datasets alive are critical to managing our fisheries. Without good data it will be far to easy for the powers that be to simply blame overfishing as vulnerable stocks begin to succumb to our CO2 habit.

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