Keeping it basic

Acidifying oceans are a big concern for Southeast Alaska’s tribes. At the 2015 Southeast Environmental Conference, hosted by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, tribal representatives Tuesday learned more about what they could do to help fight it.

Ocean acidification is a problem only a small percentage of Americans know about, said Brad Warren.

Warren, a speaker at this year’s conference, held in Juneau, is the Director of Global Ocean Health, a National Fisheries Conservation Center program.

“It’s a threat to fish everywhere,” Warren said.

For those who may not have heard of it, ocean acidification is exactly what it sounds like. The world’s oceans are getting more acidic as they absorb up to a third of the 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year, Warren said. Carbonic acid, however, is just the start of it.

“This is the fastest change in the chemistry of the ocean that’s been documented,” he said.

It means there’s less calcium carbonate — the building blocks of shells — for shellfish to work with. Acid dissolves the shells of shellfish and pteropods, a tiny creature Warren describes as “kind of a big deal.” Pteropods are an important food source for many kinds of fish — up to 60 percent of a pink salmon’s food — and along the West Coast, more than 50 percent are already showing “severe shell dissolution,” he said.

Normal ocean pH is 8.1; 100 percent of king crabs die at slightly more acidic 7.5 pH waters within 100 days. That means if things don’t change, the Bering Sea king crab fishery could be wiped out within the century. Tanner crab are a little more resilient: in 200 days, 70 percent die in 7.5 pH water, he said.

“There’s a crisis in the shellfish industry along the West Coast,” he said. “No more ‘Deadliest Catch.’ It’s (king crab is) just not going to be there.”

“We’re treating this Earth like we have another place to go,” commented CCTHITA 2nd Vice President Rob Sanderson, in attendance.


Fishing fleets from the Bering Sea to Iceland have reduced their fuel consumption, but that alone won’t stop the process. Industry needs to get on board as well, Warren said.

“We have got to reduce the amount of carbon we turn loose in the world,” he said.

Cap and trade programs can help reduce the amount of carbon going into the ocean; ironically, rising oceans may also offer some relief, as humans have developed a vast amount of salt water wetlands and rising oceans will create more. Tidal salt marshes absorb 10 to17 times more carbon per acre than tropical rainforests, Warren said.

Much of the work to help alleviate the issue can be done locally, Warren said. One of those things is sampling, something CCTHITA Environmental Coordinator of Native Lands and Resources Raymond E. Paddock III said CCTHITA and tribes are already working on for other projects, and will likely expand to acidification.

“Just collecting plankton samples creates a record that produces a potentially really important insight” into changes, Warren said.

Starting at last year’s conference, Paddock said, participants created working groups based on the issues that most concerned them — last year, harmful alga, climate change and transboundary mining. The United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group has been a voice on the issue over the last year. They’ve also been applying for grants for work related to those issues, and will be attending climate change adaptation training in December.

“I want to create tangible work out of the things that are being presented on,” Paddock said.

Other topics addressed at the conference, which began Monday and ends today, include clean air, derelict fishing gear, brownfields, water quality standards in Washington and transboundary mining.

“There’s nobody that doesn’t care about healthy waters and oceans,” Warren said. “It’s one thing we all agree on — we don’t want an ocean that stops making the things we love.”

• Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at

Info box:

Global Ocean Health’s website is

The University of Alaska, Fairbanks has a research program on ocean acidification, available at

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