Ocean acidification has been big news lately. Experts have spoken about the possible consequences for shellfish and the critters that eat them but, its actual impact in Southeast Alaska is not known. Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research, a network of 15 Southeast tribes, hopes to answer that question.

 

Wrangell and fourteen other tribes have participated in the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research program, collecting clams and cockles for paralytic shellfish poison testing. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska heads the initiative and now wants to get a baseline for ocean acidification in the region.

Sitka tribe Environmental Specialist Esther Kennedy explains that monitoring ocean acidification in near-shore environments has been quite difficult until recently.

“Most of the research on OA to date has been done in the open ocean,” Kennedy said.

These environments naturally have wide swings in ocean chemistry due to stream and river volume changes, storms and droughts, and proximity to the open ocean.

“I suspect that Sitka Sound will look a lot more like the Gulf of Alaska than it will look like Wrangell with its huge fresh water input from the Stikine,” Kennedy noted. “One of the things that will be really interesting is can we start to see say gradience and effects of ocean acidification as we move from the outer coast into the even more coastal environments.”

The project aims to get a baseline for Southeast waters. Some data will be obtained through a buoy in Sitka Sound that will measure PH levels and dissolved carbon dioxide in the water, a slice of the many variables measured to indicate ocean acidification. The buoy will help answer the main concern of the environmental issue, how difficult it is for organisms to form a shell.

Inside a Burkolator, an instrument used measure several variables indicating ocean acidification. (Courtesy of Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research)

“That plays into the second part of our ocean acidification project where we are now installing a Burkolator in our lab,” Kennedy said.

A Burkolator is a machine that will be constantly taking measurements in one of Sitka’s harbors, but will also test samples sent in by 14 tribes across the region. The Wrangell Cooperative Association monitors phytoplankton and collects clam and cockle samples at two popular sites south of town, Shoemaker Bay Harbor and Pats Creek Landing. Shellfish samples are sent to the lab in Sitka for testing, and the results are dispersed on the program’s website. 

Chris Hatton, WCA’s Indian Environmental General Assistance Program coordinator, said the tribe is excited to participate.

“Because we are already going to some of these locations once a week and sometimes more than once a week, we’ll be able to grab a sample in a special brown jar. Then that jar will be stored for a bit and sent to Sitka where they can analyze it at four levels of acidification and other things in the water,” Hatton explained. “It’ll be great to get a baseline because that’s what we don’t have yet.”

Hatton added she’s interested to see how Wrangell’s large freshwater influence plays out when it comes to ocean acidification and paralytic shellfish poisoning.

“With our PSP results, I think we are all realizing there is the chance and there are cockles and clams that are higher in PSP than what we recommend for consumption,” Hatton said. “Our fresh water maybe helps us, but it doesn’t keep us safe necessarily.”

Kennedy said with such environmental diversity in Southeast, she hopes to use the project’s data as a model for other parts of Alaska. Data from the open ocean will be used to tease out the large variabilities of near-shore environments.

Kennedy noted measuring ocean acidification will also answer questions about the impacts of fewer shell-forming organisms.

“An indirect effect would be less food for other creatures such as crustaceans, which are also going to have shell-forming difficulties, but also salmon, marine mammals will have a more difficult time finding food,” Kennedy explained.

Kennedy hopes to have the buoy up and running within a month and plans to start testing samples from around the region in September.