New Buoy Network Could Help Determine Long-Term Impacts of Ocean Acidification

A major education effort by scientists and fishermen is leading to the conclusion that if Ocean Acidification is not a problem yet,  it’s about to be.  And a proposal that will likely be before the legislature next session is looking for money to enlarge the state’s Ocean Acidification observation network with new monitoring buoys to provide an early warning system that could help avoid an immediate fishing disaster – and help determine the long-term impacts of acidification.

Here’s the problem with ocean acidification:   When there’s too much Carbon Dioxide – or CO2 — in the air,   too much of it gets into the water.  Then, CO2 increases the acidity of the seawater,  which keeps calcium carbonate from being available.  Calcium Carbonate is what forms the shells of Oysters and Clams – and the skeletons of many other marine organisms. If that layer of the food chain fails,  everything above it will be at risk.

Dr. Jeremy Mathis is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Oceanography at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.   He says measurements of acid levels are now not much more than a series of snapshots – readings taken when fishermen or university boats sample water from time to time.  That data has shown some alarming trends,  But he says it’s very hard to put those numbers into context.

“What’s so great about this buoy network that we’ve proposed is that these buoys sit in the water 365 days of the year,  they’re making continuous measurements and they’re sending the measurements back in real time to the lab.   And so we’re getting instantaneous data from them all the time – and it fills in those gaps for us so we understand not only the season cycles of how the ocean changes over the course of the year, but we can also see those inter-annual trends, how the water is changing over those longer time scales,” Mathis said.

Two buoys are currently at work – one near Resurrection Bay,  the other just to the west of Bristol Bay.   But Mathis says the $2.7 million budget request will expand the observation network by three more monitoring stations – one near Kodiak Island, one in Southeast and one more in the Bering Sea.

Legislators are familiar with the need for the project.  House Finance Co-Chair Bill Thomas – a fisherman from Haines – says the oceans are critical to a lot of Alaskans;  and although he doesn’t write the capital projects budget, he will support the project when it comes up.

“It protects the wild stock and the hatchery operations that we fish here in Alaska. $2.7 million to me, it’d be worth it,” Thomas said.

Mathis says a part of the budget request would go to research –calculating  what is likely to happen to acidic levels and the impact on fisheries.  He says the data is available,

“It won’t be easy, but it’s something that can be done at this point.   We can actually quantify what the cost of ocean acidification is today,  what it’ll be ten years from now, what it’ll be 50 years from now.  And that’s extremely important thinking about state resources and our fisheries.  And the only way we’re going to get that data is if we make an investment and then we spend the time and the effort to actually quantify it right now,” Mathis said.

Mathis says the possible effects of ocean acidification are not just speculative.   He points to the oyster hatcheries along the coast of Washington and Oregon in 2009.  The industry was worth about $85 million to the region’s annual economy when the oysters began to fail.  Initially, breeders thought the problem was a lethal bacterial strain,  but they eventually learned they were circulating acidic water through their facilities.

“I don’t want that to happen here in Alaska.  I think we need to get ahead of that so we’re being proactive in terms of ocean acidification instead of reactive.  We don’t want to wait to the point where we see a major fishery start to struggle or even collapse before we start addressing the problem,” Mathis said.

The hatcheries were able to avoid financial collapse – by putting monitor buoys  offshore.  When the readings said the water was too acidic,  they turned off the external pumps.  The Pacific Oyster industry is thriving again by taking the measures Mathis suggests Alaska adopt.

The university’s budget will be included in the spending proposals the governor makes public next month.  Mathis hopes the Ocean Acidification project is part of it