Global warming and climate change have already been melting glaciers in Alaska, causing a range of problems for ice-dwelling animals. Now research is pointing to another way climate change is bad for Alaska's ecosystem: ocean acidification is harming their commercial fisheries. A new study shows that Alaska's fish population is dwindling due to increased ocean acidification. The study, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be published online in Progress in Oceanography.
Ocean acidification is what happens when ocean water becomes increasingly acidic after absorbing the excess carbon dioxide released into the air by man-made sources. Living in an acidic environment is harmful to the ocean's delicate ecosystem, especially shellfish, corals, and small creatures that are low down on the food chain. The acid interferes with the animals' ability to form shells or skeletons. Two of Alaska's most important fish exports, red king crab and tanner crab, are especially affected by ocean acidification. Even worse news for Alaskan fish farmers, cold waters absorb more carbon dioxide than warm seas, so Alaska is even more vulnerable to this problem than other areas of the world.
The study shows that communities in southeast and southwest Alaska are at the highest risk of economic distress due to the declining fish population caused by ocean acidification, because their fisheries are projected to be most affected by the change in ocean conditions, and those communities are already suffering from conditions of poverty which make them more vulnerable.
Jeremy Mathis, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study, said, "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." Mathis is 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.
Over 100,000 jobs in Alaska are fishing-related, and the fish industry generates more than $5 billion in revenue, according to the NOAA press release. About 17 percent of Alaskans depend on local fisheries for most of their dietary protein. If the fishing industry in Alaska were to collapse, it could have disastrous effects on the economy of the region.
Steve Colt, Ph.D., and co-author of the study, said, "Ocean acidification is not just an ecological problem - it's an economic problem." Colt is an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He said, "The people of coastal Alaska, who have always looked to the sea for sustenance and prosperity, will be most affected. 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."
Residents should start preparing now for a possible future without fishing, the study says. The NOAA's Ocean Acidification Program and the Alaskan state government are currently working together to create tools to help local people adjust to the upcoming climate change.