Ocean Acidity Threatens Alaskan Red King Crab Vital to Fisheries

Jul 29, 2014 04:57 PM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

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Increasing acidity in ocean waters could mean trouble for lucrative fisheries including those that catch Alaska's red king crab, according to new research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Oceans are now about 30 percent more acidic compared with levels at the start of the Industrial Revolution due to the increase of carbon dioxide in the air, the Associated Press reported. The water soaks up CO2 from human sources such as power plants that burn fossil fuels.

If people continue to burn fossil fuels at the same rate, pH levels could fall significantly by the end of the century, said Jeremy Mathis, co-author of the study and an NOAA oceanographer.

"We could have a 300 percent greater change between now and the end of the century than we have in the past 250 years combined," he said. "So the rate of change is what's accelerating."

How will that affect the red king crab and ocean life? Research has indicated that mollusks and other sea creatures are sensitive to shifts in ocean chemistry, struggling to build and keep their protective shells. The red king crab and tanner crab grows more slowly while living in acidic water, while the former will die after too long in highly acidified conditions, according to previous studies.

As the water changes and affects ocean life, ocean acidification will impact fisheries as well.

"In a place like the Bering Sea, where a billion-dollar industry has been built around a few species of crabs, then that's where we really start to worry. It's something we're going to have to pay very close attention to," Mathis said.

Alaskan waters are especially vulnerable to rising acidity due to their cold temperatures, which will absorb more carbon dioxide, as well as circulation patterns that pull more acidic water from the deeps of the ocean to the surface.

The NOAA findings have been detailed in a study recently published in Progress in Oceanography

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