The conclusions of a new study sent shudders through everyone at Vital Choice.
And they should serve as an alarm bell to all who love wild Alaskan salmon and shellfish.
The world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems absorb nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide released from burnt fossil fuels and other human sources.
By serving as “carbon sinks” the oceans reduce global warming … but that benefit comes with potentially catastrophic consequences for sea life.
Absorption of atmospheric carbon increases the acidity of ocean water, and the rate of “ocean acidification” has risen almost one-third since the mid-1800s.
Fast-rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are changing the chemistry of the world's oceans, which will damage shellfish … and the fish and people that depend on them.
In fact, ocean acidification is accelerating fast and could well spell disaster for the marine food chain … with dire consequences for fishing communities and human health. (See our sidebar, “Why Americans need more seafood”.)
Three years ago, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution predicted that ocean acidification will harm marine life – especially shellfish like clams, oysters, and mussels – over the next 10 to 50 years.
need more seafood
Why would a collapse of fisheries impact human health?
Seafood is the only direct source of two “long-chain” omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) the body needs to survive and thrive.
Humans can only make very small amounts of omega-3 DHA and EPA from the “short-chain” omega-3 fat called ALA, small amounts of which are found in a few plant foods (e.g., dark leafy greens, walnuts, and flax seed).
Worse, the average American consumes far too many omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils … a gross excess that impairs conversion of plant-source omega-3 ALA into the “long-chain” forms (DHA and EPA) the body actually needs.
And wild salmon – especially sockeye – depend on heavily on zooplankton and tiny crustaceans like krill, which are acutely threatened by rapid acidification.
We’ve covered this and related threats several times … see “Oceans as Carbon Guards and Victims”, “Claim of Slower Global Warming Appears Bogus”, “Jellyfish Boom Threatens Ocean Food Chain”, and “Coastal Dead Zones Linked to Ocean Warming”.
The accelerating danger of ocean acidification is also detailed in the moving documentary titled A Sea Change.
Now, a study from America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) raises the alarm to red-flag levels.
NOAA study sees potential for rapid collapse of Alaska’s wild salmon
According to new NOAA-led research, ocean acidification threatens Alaska’s commercial fisheries … and some Alaskans’ way of life (Mathis JT et al. 2014).
The new study was co-led by NOAA oceanographer Jeremy Mathis, Ph.D., who also directs the Ocean Acidification Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
Dr. Mathis and his team concluded that many of Alaska’s valuable fisheries are located in waters unusually vulnerable to rapid, near-term acceleration of ocean acidification.
Why are Alaska’s frigid coastal waters particularly vulnerable?
Cold water can absorb more carbon dioxide, and Alaska’s ocean-circulation patterns draw naturally acidic deep-ocean waters to the surface.
Salmon and shellfish in southeast and southwest Alaska face the highest risk from rapid ocean acidification:
- Southeast Alaska – site of the stunning, whale-filled Inside Passage – hosts the small, “boutique” fisheries that provide most of our frozen wild salmon.
- Southwest Alaska encompasses Bristol Bay – the site of the world’s biggest sockeye salmon harvest, by far – and Bering Sea regions that host much of Alaska’s crab harvest.
Rapid, carbon-driven changes in ocean chemistry are already reducing the ability of shellfish, corals, and small creatures near the bottom of the marine 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.
NOAA map: Alaskan shellfish at highest risk (Mathis JT et al. 2014)
Acidification's threat to vulnerable Alaskans
Underlying factors in southeast and southwest Alaska – such as lower incomes and fewer job options – leave their communities especially vulnerable to shortages of Alaskan seafood.
“Ocean acidification is not just an ecological problem – it’s an economic problem,” said Steve Colt, Ph.D., co-author of the study and an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage (NOAA 2014).
Their study examined the potential effects on a state where commercial fishing provides more than 100,000 jobs, generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue, and helps maintain the U.S. balance of trade.
Fishery-related tourism brings in another $300 million annually, and almost one in five Alaskans – about 120,000 people – rely on subsistence fisheries for most or all of their protein.
The authors recommend 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 co-lead author Sarah Cooley, Ph.D. (NOAA 2014).
While acknowledging that the most important step is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions globally, the research details strategies that could help protect affected communities.
Decision-makers can address socioeconomic factors – low incomes, poor nutrition, lack of educational attainment and diverse employment opportunities – that hinder communities’ ability to adapt to environmental change.
What can you do?
It may sound like a cliché, but the best thing is to write to your U.S. Senators and Congresspersons.
We suggest that you cite the new NOAA report, and a new analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).
According to the CEA report, the U.S. economy could lose $150 billion a year unless America cuts its own carbon emissions.
The CEA also calculated that climate-change costs will rise 40 percent during every decade that does not see a significant drop in carbon emissions worldwide.
Their report bolsters the Environmental Protection Agency proposal to enact stricter emission standards on the nation’s largest source of atmospheric carbon … coal-fired power plants.
We believe that the overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of climate change cannot be ignored.
And if you care about the survival of American shellfish and wild salmon, we urge you to act to defend them from carbon-driven ocean acidification.
Executive Office of the President of the United States. The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change. July 2014. Accessed at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/the_cost_of_delaying_action _to_stem_climate_change.pdf
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC WG I AR5). 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis
Mathis JT et al. Ocean acidification risk assessment for Alaska’s fishery sector. Progress in Oceanography. Available online 18 July 2014. DOI: 10.1016/j.pocean.2014.07.001 Accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0079661114001141#
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA-led study shows Alaska fisheries and communities at risk from ocean acidification. July 29, 2014 (Updated July 31, 2014). Accessed at http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2014/20140729_oceanacidification.html
National Research Council. 2010. Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12785
U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). 2014. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.