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Arctic fish: living on thin ice?

December 12, 2011 | 2:18 pm | , Science and Solutions Director

Source: NOAA

Like seafood for dinner? Then you might not like climate change.

About half of the millions of tons of seafood caught in the U.S. every year comes from Alaska, one of the most rapidly warming parts of the country. That warming, according to a new report from NOAA, is having “profound and continuing” effects on Alaska’s ocean habitat.

At first glance, warming might seem like a good thing for life in the Arctic Ocean. The productivity of tiny plants at the bottom of the food chain — called phytoplankton — has increased by about 20% in the last decade. Phytoplankton feed tiny animals called pteropods, which in turn feed some of Alaska’s most economically valuable fish species. At the same time, however, the ocean is getting more acidic because of an increase in carbon dioxide in the water. Scientists have been warning for years that carbon pollution could eventually make ocean waters corrosive to the shells of pteropods. As NOAA says in the new report, “the eastern Bering Sea will likely be one of the first ocean acidification impact zones for U.S. national interests.”

(Scientists, by the way, aren’t the only ones interested in the effects of acidification on pteropods. If you’re in New York this spring, you can check out a show of sculptures inspired in part by the work of scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)

The rise in Arctic temperatures has also started to affect where certain fish are found — and how people harvest them. Fishermen in southeast Alaska have started to catch “unrecognizable” species. Rural Alaskans are catching fish that appear to be sick, and are having difficulty storing traditional foods because of higher temperatures.

Do you rely on coastal species for your livelihood or part of your food supply? How are rising temperatures and acidification affecting species in your part of the world? Leave a comment and let us know.

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