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Alaska in the Spotlight: Supporting Communities Facing the Big Risks From Ocean Acidification

Posted On July 29, 2014 by

The total risk of Alaska’s boroughs and census areas from ocean acidification. Red areas are at highest risk, while blue areas are at lowest risk. Population size (circles), commercial harvest value (dollar sign size), and subsistence fishing significance (fish icon size) contribute to the total risk. Reprinted from Progress in Oceanography.

We know that some people will be more at risk than others as a result of ocean acidification. We have seen this with oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest.  Scientists are now trying to determine what puts certain regions at greater risk than others from ocean acidification. Before I came to Ocean Conservancy, I helped lead a study on this question for Alaska, and it’s just been published in Progress in Oceanography this week.

My coauthors and I found that many of southwest and southeast Alaska’s boroughs and census areas (similar to counties or parishes in other states) face social and economic risk from ocean acidification – namely, many of the foods they eat and sell for income, all coming from the sea, are threatened by changes in the ocean’s chemistry.


A number of factors combine to elevate risk in certain regions of Alaska. The unique oceanography that makes Alaska’s coastal oceans productive also makes them more susceptible to acidification. Commercial and recreational fisheries that rely heavily on crabs and clams—species that are more likely to be hurt by acidification—pose serious economic risk to both individuals and industry. Many of Alaska’s coastal residents feed themselves by harvesting crabs and clams, which means that they may face food security risks as their private harvests decline. And some risk doesn’t even come from the ocean at all. It comes from factors like low incomes, few industries, scarce jobs, limited education, and the high cost of imported foods that are common throughout many parts of Alaska.

By adding all of these factors together, our study showed that southeastern and southwestern Alaska face the greatest overall risk (see figure). At the same time, other factors like nutrient pollution from land, overfishing, and ice melting add stress to marine ecosystems and worsen the effects of ocean acidification.

Now that we know which areas could be hit hardest in Alaska and why, we can start to prevent future losses from ocean acidification. Since the main cause of ocean acidification is atmospheric carbon dioxide, we all need to work towards cutting emissions. But that will take time and many partnerships across the nation. While we work towards that, we can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities against ocean acidification by making them stronger from within.

Programs that help educate Alaska’s residents, attract a greater array of job opportunities, and improve access to affordable, nutritious food will help these communities avoid depending too heavily on natural resources that could disappear. We can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities with environmental stewardship efforts that decrease nutrient pollution, overfishing, and ice melting. Even though ocean acidification seems like an insurmountable problem that lies beyond individual actions, studies like this show that small actions, added up, can decrease the overall risk of communities from global changes like ocean acidification.