Commentary: Ocean acidification research buoyed by state funding
Thanks to a nearly $3 million show of support from the state, high tech buoys will soon be measuring ocean acidity levels year round, and Alaska fishermen will play an important role in the research.
Basic chemistry proves that ocean waters are becoming more corrosive and it is happening faster in colder waters. The acidity, caused by increasing carbon dioxide emissions, can prevent shells from forming on crabs or oysters and tiny shrimplike organisms essential to fish diets.
Alaska’s monitoring project will allow scientists to develop a “sensitivity index” for the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and the Arctic, and key species in the regions.
“By doing that we will get an idea of which regions are the most vulnerable,” explained Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer and director of the Ocean Acidification Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “After that, we will be able to start modeling out some scenarios using our ocean observations combined with subsistence and economic data — where if there was a disruption in a certain species, we could quantify those costs. We can communicate with stakeholders and policy makers using numbers instead of in terms of pH levels and saturate rates.”
Mathis and his team will begin ordering and building the buoy equipment next month with deployment planned for next March. The fully loaded buoys each come at a price tag of about $300,000, or roughly the price of one 10-day research cruise.
The buoys will be located in Southeast, Resurrection Bay off Seward, Kodiak, and the Bering Sea.
“That buoy sits about 100 miles west of Bristol Bay, right in the middle of the big crab fishery. So between those four sites we are able to monitor where the stakeholders and the fisheries are, and ultimately we will be able to answer some of those ecosystem questions,” Mathis said.
The OA research center will contract with fishermen and vessels for buoy deployments and maintenance, as well as for collecting water samples to expand the ocean chemistry database.
“We hope to be able to utilize the fleets in these different locations, rather than charter a research vessel from somewhere else,” Mathis said, adding that he gets a dozen calls a week from fishermen and others offering to collaborate on OA related research.
Mathis said he was amazed at how quickly Alaskans have organized in support of expanding OA research and called the state money, “a major victory for science this year.”
“We are at the tip of the spear in terms of the impacts we are going to have and because of the fisheries we rely on. It is truly amazing to see the support at the grass roots level and have the legislature and the governor step up and allow us to take the national lead on this,” Mathis said.
The state will get a good return for its investment. By putting up the seed money for the buoys, federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation can partner with the Alaska project for the long term.
“It is a way to bring funds into the state,” Mathis said. “We will now be more competitive in bringing in federal science dollars into Alaska and the university with a high return. Over the next five years, my group alone will be able to bring in significantly more federal dollars than what the state has invested in it. But we would probably not have been able to do it if the initial investment had not been made.”
One key species that appears to be dodging the corrosive ocean bullet is Alaska pollock. Based on the first multi-year studies, pollock seem to be unaffected changes in ocean acidity levels.
“We didn’t see dramatic declines in growth or death rates when we exposed them to the more acidic conditions,” Mathis said. “We are hoping we can continue research to show that pollock might have some natural resiliency to changes in ocean conditions.”
The report on pollock and ocean acidification is on its way to science journals.
Bristol Bay opened its salmon season on June 1; Kodiak followed on June 9. Catches of Copper River reds have topped the one million mark … No fishing for Yukon kings for the third year in a row. State managers predict a lower statewide salmon harvest this year of 132 million fish after 177 million last year due to a forecast decrease in pink catches.
Halibut fishermen have taken 37 percent of their 24 million pound catch limit … sablefish longliners have taken nearly half of their 29 million pound quota. Prices for halibut are still topping $6 pound at major ports, and $9 for large sablefish.
The Bering Sea pollock and cod fisheries reopened on June 10. The Bering Sea snow crab fishery, which got under way in January, has finally wrapped up its longest season ever, due to ice freezing up the fishery.
Estimates peg the snow crab catch at just shy of the 80 million pound quota.