By Hannah Heimbuch
Unless chemistry is your chosen language, ocean acidification can be a little unwieldy.
It is impressively global and microscopic, a chemical shift in seawater driven by diverse factors, including the absorption of as much as half of our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide. Its impacts and implications are not fully understood, and research and technology in this arena are relatively new. After all, it has been 55 million years since Earth experienced a major acidification event, and it’s happening 10 times faster this time around. This shift is even more pronounced in cold northern latitudes, like the waters around Alaska.
In 2015, Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Cook Inletkeeper teamed up to develop a touchscreen ocean acidification kiosk, an educational tool that features video testimonials from fishermen, scientists, and community leaders all speaking about this complex issue. After its launch in Homer, and a long summer season spent in Kodiak, the kiosk made a Gulf of Alaska leap this last month and landed in Sitka. It’s stationed at the harbormaster’s office, slated to stay through the winter.
AMCC staffers Hannah and Jonalyn arrived in Sitka in time for Whalefest, where they shared the kiosk with festivalgoers before its harbor-side installation. Ocean acidity is one of countless critical elements that influence a marine habitat. This aspect of the seawater climate impacts critters from pteropods to the very whales being celebrated in Sitka during Whalefest week. Pteropods in particular (an essential food for many birds, fish and marine mammals) are sensitive to changes in acidity. They need calcium-based building blocks to construct their shells, much like crabs, corals, and clams. In seawater with higher acidity, those calcium building blocks start to break down, and there’s less available to those that need them to thrive.
There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding ocean acidification (OA) and how it will affect our marine ecosystem. AMCC is working to connect coastal communities to quality information and opportunities to stay informed. Part of our goal in Sitka is to link people up with the growing Alaska Ocean Acidification Network. Coordinated by the Alaska Ocean Observing System, this new collaboration aims to bring diverse stakeholders together around this complex issue, broadening the understanding of ocean acidification trends in Alaska, and the potential for adaptation and mitigation. Collaborators include scientists, aquaculture and fishing industries, coastal communities, decision makers and the general public.
The Network serves as a connector, communicator and resource on ocean acidification, working to share information and research practices among those studying this evolving issue, and those impacted by it.
As fishermen we know that we are a part of and dependent on a profoundly complex and dynamic natural system. We also know that when that system experiences significant change, we can expect to see that change ripple through the ecological framework of our ocean world. This is the lens through which many fishermen see ocean acidification. This is why we know it’s time to pay close attention to what comes next.
Because of this lens, we have big questions. How will this fundamental change in chemistry affect the local coastline and creatures? Will there be shifts in food web dynamics that alter marine populations and the industries that harvest them? These are detailed issues, but they address the big stuff: food, work, and environment. And we all have a stake in the answers.
While in Sitka, AMCC was able to host a roundtable with fishermen and local leaders, discussing ecosystem-based fisheries management and what it currently and could look like to let an ecosystem-wide lens inform our resource management choices.
With an ecosystem-minded approach to studying and managing our natural resources, we take into account the fact that we are dependent on not one solitary element of a natural habitat, but that habitat in its entirety. That includes the marine mammals off our coastline, the salmon charging upstream, the seasonally blooming plankton, and the chemical composition of their ever-shifting environments.
By participating in and creating opportunities for an active dialogue on issues that impact our marine environment, AMCC will continue to be a connector between diverse stakeholders and important resources.
Feeling inspired to take action? Subscribe to the Ocean Acidification Network listserv to receive information about this issue and upcoming opportunities to learn more. And stay tuned in Sitka for more developments around the ocean acidification kiosk this winter, including development of new videos, naming the kiosk, and more.
Congratulations and thank you to the Sitka Sound Science Center and Whalefest Coordinator extraordinaire Mia Kuartei for an excellent job on this year’s festival. And another thank you to Lauren Bell and Dane McFadden for their help coordinating the kiosk’s installation, and building a sturdy stand for it to live on. AMCC can’t wait to head back to Sitka!
Hannah Heimbuch is AMCC’s Homer-based Community Fisheries Organizer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.