Murkowski introduces bill to study ocean acidification

Global warming is causing ocean water to become less like baking soda and more like milk, chemically speaking. It’s a phenomena called ocean acidification (OA) and it could have damaging effects for marine life.

A bill announced week by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski seeks to study the effects OA would have on coastal communities. The Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act of 2017 would direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess the vulnerability coastal communities have to ocean acidification. It was introduced in the Senate on Dec. 14 and announced in a release by Murkowski’s office on Tuesday.

“This proactively addresses a very real issue and will help us all gain a deeper understanding of how ocean acidification is affecting our coastal and subsistence communities throughout Alaska,” Murkowski said in a statement. “This is significant legislation for those living in a state or community whose livelihood greatly depends on the health of our oceans.”

Ocean acidification could hurt Alaska’s fishing communities, especially those that depend on shellfish. The problem amounts to a swift change marine life may not be prepared to deal with quickly, explained NOAA Kodiak Lab Director Robert Foy. Our oceans are like a sink, Foy said, which absorb 30 percent of the carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere. That CO2 is driving OA.

“On a global average, we expect the pH to decrease substantially in the next 50 to 100 years,” Foy said.

Right now the average ocean pH is about 8.0 or 8.1., about the pH of chicken eggs. Foy said they expect that to go down to 7.1 to 7.8., a number closer to the 7.0 pH value pure water registers.

Studies by Foy and his colleagues show that crab have a hard time forming shells when pH levels drop below 7.8. Since pH is measured on a logarithmic scale, that change amounts to a 60-70 percent increase in acidity.

Crab and other shellfish have a hard time accessing a substance called carbonate at these levels, which they need to build shells. Key salmon prey called pteropods are affected similarly. The “big question” is if OA will rearrange ocean ecosystem, Foy said, changing the way plants and animals interact with one another. If that happens, Alaska’s fisheries might suffer across the board.

“That’s why this bill is so important, is that we start addressing what the effect could be,” Foy said. “Having a focus on coastal monitoring is critical if we’re going to truly understand how this impacts the ecosystem and the economic effects on commercial fisheries.”

Studies into the effects OA is having on inside waters in Southeast are already underway. The state ferry Columbia began monitoring ocean acidification earlier this fall in a collaborative project between the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center, the Tula Foundation and NOAA.

The Columbia sails from Bellingham, Washinton, through the Inside Passage once a week year round. Data from the Columbia isn’t yet publicly available, ACRC’s Allison Bidlack said, but they are processing data from the study.

The Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act of 2017 was introduced by U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Gary Peters (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

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