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NOAA: Ocean Acidification Threatens Alaskan Fisheries and Communities

Jul 29, 2014 11:52 AM EDT
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Ocean acidification, as a result of carbon dioxide release into the air, could pose a risk to Alaska's valuable fisheries and communities, according to a recent NOAA-led study.
(Photo : Pixabay)

Ocean acidification, as a result of carbon dioxide release into the air, could pose a risk to Alaska's valuable fisheries and communities, according to a recent NOAA-led study.

Ocean water becomes more acidic when it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) released by human sources, such as the burning of fossil fuels. Oceans typically soak up nearly a third of the CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Increased ocean acidification could harm important Alaska commercial and subsistence fisheries and communities that depend on them, according to the NOAA report published Tuesday in the online journal Progress in Oceanography.

What's more, this change in ocean chemistry could, and already has in some places, affect marine life - particularly the ability of shellfish, corals and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain to build skeletons or shells. Previous studies have shown that red king crab and tanner crab, two important Alaskan fisheries, grow more slowly and don't survive in more acidic waters.

Not to mention that the Alaskan coast is already more vulnerable to ocean acidification. Its colder waters absorb more CO2 and its unique ocean circulation patterns bring naturally acidic deep ocean waters to the surface.

Individual components of the final ocean acidification risk index for each census area showing the communities with the highest risk are in the Southeast and Southwest of the state.
(Photo : NOAA) Individual components of the final ocean acidification risk index for each census area showing the communities with the highest risk are in the Southeast and Southwest of the state.

Worsening ocean acidification is not just bad news for marine life, it's bad news for the humans that depend on them as well.

"Ocean acidification is not just an ecological problem - it's an economic problem," Steve Colt, Ph.D., co-author of the study and an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said in a statement. "The people of coastal Alaska, who have always looked to the sea for sustenance and prosperity, will be most affected.

The state's fishing industry supports 100,000 jobs, generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue and provides 17 percent of Alaskans with food.

Communities in southeast and southwest Alaska face the highest risk from ocean acidification because of their reliance on fishing, relatively lower income levels and fewer job alternatives than other parts of Alaska, the report states.

While direct, harmful impacts aren't showing up yet, the ocean is changing quickly, according to co-lead author and NOAA oceanographer Jeremy Mathis. Oceans are about 30 percent more acidic today than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution, he said via The Associated Press. If fossil fuels continue to be burned at the current rate, pH levels could drop significantly by the end of the century.

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