Alaska: The Canary in the Coal Mine

Alaska: The Canary in the Coal Mine

• Tigger Montague

This past August, I returned to Alaska, to spend some time in the wilderness, to unplug from technology, and listen to the water and the wind. 

The words on many Alaskans’ lips these days are: “when are the fish going to return?”

Signs of climate change:
Alaska is the state that is the canary in the coal mine in terms of climate change for the US. The arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet. While we may not feel the effects quite as strongly yet in the Continental US, Alaska is already experiencing it. The solid permafrost beneath many of the roads, buildings and pipelines is starting to thaw; at least 31 coastal towns and cities may need to relocate as protective sea ice vanishes and fierce waves erode Alaska’s shores. Alaska recently created a task force that proposed that Alaska get 50% of its electricity from renewable source like solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal by 2025.

Native communities that rely on walrus hunting are seeing catches decline as the sea ice disappears.

Ocean acidification is affecting the southwest and southeast regions around the Gulf of Alaska, specifically the mollusks and other shellfish that contribute substantially to Alaska’s highly productive commercial fisheries and traditional subsistence way of life. The hub of commercial fisheries attract fishing tourists who account for half of Alaska’s income from tourism.

Alaska’s 33,000km coastline is 50% greater than the rest of the US shoreline combined, and produces about half the total commercial fish catch in all the US waters.

The algae bloom:
Warmer water helps all algae, and acidification can change how much toxin an algae produces.  Currently in places like Kachemak Bay, eating shellfish is recommended only from commercial shellfish farmers who do regular testing.  Butter clams hold toxins for years and are responsible for half of Alaska’s poisonings, and mussels accumulate algae toxins quickly.  Although Alaska has a history of biotoxins, beginning in 1799 when 100 Kodiak men died from toxic mussels while hunting sea otters for Russian fur traders, the changes in water temperature and acidification increases algae blooms.

A tiny species of algae called Alexandrium produces a chemical called saxitoxin and is a thousand times more toxic than sarin gas; it was once studied as part of our biological weapons program in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Alaska isn’t the only state fighting algae bloom: New England’s shellfish industry was closed in January 2018 because of the toxic algae Pseudo-nitszchia.  Four different kinds of algal toxins were found in mussels collected in San Francisco Bay according to a study published 3/15/2018, and Florida currently battles a marathon algae bloom killing thousands of marine animals.  What makes this year’s algae bloom in Florida unusual is that it started last October and has stretched for more than nine months.

The salmon:
For the past five years there has been a rapid decline in Chinook salmon and Sockeye salmon in the southern Alaska rivers.  The number of Chinook estimated necessary to spawn and maintain a healthy run on the Kenai river starts at 2,100 fish.  Alaska Fish and Wildlife expects only about 530 Chinook salmon will make it to the spawning beds this summer.  On the Keshka River, so far 4,200 Chinook have made it, and the state is projecting a total of 7,000 will return; however, the basic sustainability goal is 13,000.

Biologists say that part of the blame is the ocean: young Chinook are dying when they first enter the ocean because of the warm water that developed in the Gulf of Alaska five years ago.

Salmon is a critical element in the ecosystem.  Not only do salmon provide food for bears, seals, indigenous people, sea-food lovers, fisherman, sea birds and eagles, but as the salmon carcasses break down into the soil, the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and fat that the salmon carry are drawn into the roots of trees. This provides important nutrients both to the soil biota and to the canopy of pines, spruce, and birch.   Without the salmon, not only do the predators suffer, but so do the soil web and the forests.

According to National Fisherman: “Salmon catches are down by a third from the same time last year.  Worse, this comes on the heels of a cod crash and tanking halibut catches.” Like the salmon, halibut stock is in decline.

The melting glaciers:
One of the tallest glaciers in the US is melting at the fastest pace in 400 years.  The study: A 400-Year Ice Core Melt Layer Record of Summertime Warming in the Alaska Range, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (March 23, 2018) showed that melting on Mount Hunter in Denali National Park can be linked to rising summer temperatures in the region.

The warming in Alaska coincides with warming in the tropical Pacific Ocean, according to the study.  Other research has shown that the tropical Pacific has warmed over the past century due to increased greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and gas.

Plastic in the ocean:
On a thirty-minute beach walk at low tide near China Poot Bay in Alaska, my guide, Parker, scooped up a bucket’s worth of plastic, brought to the beach by the tides.  China Poot Bay is only accessible by sea plane or boat; there are no roads into this part of the wilderness.

Trash in China Poot Bay in Alaska

It is estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean annually.  Of those: 236,000 tons are microplastics: tiny pieces of broken down plastic smaller than our fingernails.  Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans.

According to Greenpeace New Zealand, “New research shows that we’ve produced plastic as heavy as 1 billion elephants since the 1950’s.  Even more staggering is the amount that has rapidly become waste.  Just 9% of this plastic has been recycled.”

Landfills and major rivers around the world contribute to the plastic in the oceans.  Major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tons of plastic into the sea every year.

What we can do:
Consumer demand for recycled plastic helps increase the commodity price, making it more worthwhile for recyclers.  Because China has significantly reduced their purchases of US recycled plastics, recycling companies need new outlets.

Seek out companies that help reduce plastic waste, that have founds ways to recycle and upcycle plastic.

Patagonia is a company that makes its fleece products from recycled plastic bottles. The shoe company Allbirds  makes their shoelaces out of consumer recycled polyester. Adidas makes a limited edition sneaker called the Ultra Boost Parley: the uppers are made from 95% recycled plastic, repurposed marine debris is used in the production of laces, heel webbing, heel lining, and sock liner covers.  This adds up to the equivalent of 11 plastic bottles per pair. Bionic Yarn Clothing takes recycled marine plastic and creates different textiles and polymers. These revolutionary threads are now being used by some major clothing companies including Timberland, and The Gap.

Helping the planet:
There are some simple things we can do to reduce our collective human impact on the earth:

  • Have one carless day per week
  • Start a compost for food waste
  • Shop with reusable shopping bags
  • Install a low-flow showerhead and cut shower time to 5 minutes
  • Seek out environmentally friendly shampoos and body washes from companies like Seed Phytonutrients, Truly Organic, and 100% Pure.
  • Plastic microbeads are in face soaps, body washes and even toothpastes.  They are sometimes included in makeup, lip gloss and nail polish. Avoid ingredients including: polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and polymethyl methacrylate .
  • Treat your backyard as its own ecosystem: avoid pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or herbicides that are not approved for organic gardens.
  • Take reusable cups to your favorite Starbucks.  Brands like KeepCup, Joco, La Bontazza (Australian), and Kahla (German) make lovely reusable coffee cups with lids and heat protectors.
  • With many restaurants phasing out plastic straws, check out Seeds for Kindness' new line of beautiful glass straws, available this fall.  These straws have a lifetime warrantee and are dishwasher safe.

Innovation and creativity:
Because of the immense environmental and climate change problems the world faces, companies, artists, and innovators around the world are not waiting on governments to provide alternatives. They are taking the initiative to reimagine ways to use what would end up in landfills, rivers, and the oceans into meaningful and useful products. Students are taking the challenges too, coming up with clever ways to re-use that which would be thrown away.

Seeds for Kindness is dedicated to these initiatives, and to showcase these goods to benefit SeaLegacy, a non profit dedicated to documenting the changes in the ocean and sea life and help to fund projects and solutions for healthy oceans.

 Alaskan Puffin

(Photos by Tigger Montague)



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