The state ferry Columbia will start testing the waters for acidity when its weekly run between Washington and Southeast Alaska gets underway later this month.

It is part of an unprecedented Alaska/Canada project to learn how increasing ocean acidity affects regional fisheries.

“The fantastic thing about this vessel is it’s going from Bellingham to Skagway and back every week. That’s a 1,600-kilometer run. Nowhere in the world is there a ferry system that’s outfitted with CO2 sensors that’s running that scale of a transit. This is really exciting.”  

Wiley Evans is with the Canadian Hakai Institute and technical lead in the program.  His team has rigged the 418-foot ferry to suck up water samples while it is under way.

The samples are measured automatically for oxygen, temperature, salinity and carbon dioxide. The CO2 levels indicate the acidity of the water.

“What we’re after is trying to understand the time and space patterns in surface ocean CO2 chemistry near shore. In this area, it’s extremely data-poor.” 

They expect to discover a “mosaic” of CO2 concentrations along the entire Southeast Alaska and British Columbia coastline, Evans says.

The soured waters make it harder for marine creatures – and the micro-organisms they feed on – to form shells, among other things.

Major studies show the southeast and southwest regions of the Gulf of Alaska will take the hardest economic hits.

“It’s really clear that shellfish are on the losing side.”

The Alaska Marine Highway System was happy to be part of the science team, says environmental specialist Christy Harrington.

It’ll be the biggest survey taking place in North America, from Bellingham to Skagway. And the route that the ferry takes is very close to shore compared to other units on board other vessels. It will give them a lot more data that they can use. We’re just very excited to be able to provide the resource for the oceanographic equipment to be on board. 

The data will be uploaded daily to the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network website.

Thanks to the assist from KRBD/Ketchikan.

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