Meet Esther Kennedy

Esther Kennedy is the environmental specialist with the Sitka Tribe.  Born and raised in Alaska, she now oversees a number of ocean acidification monitoring projects in the Sitka Sound area. 

Q: What drew you to the study of ocean acidification in Alaska?

I studied geology in college, specifically Earth history and paleo-ocean chemistry. Ocean acidification has been directly implicated with or associated with most marine mass extinctions in the last 500 million years! The more I learned about ocean acidification’s morbid history, the more modern acidification work fascinated me. Now we have the opportunity to study acidification on a much faster time frame than we have seen in the geologic record (everyone has to find a silver lining somewhere…). I was lucky enough to be offered a job getting an OA-monitoring project started at the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in 2015 and have been happily working on that project ever since.

Q: Tell us more about your role — what element do you work on and where?

I work for the Resource Protection Department of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, where our primary focus is to ensure or improve access to traditional subsistence or cultural resources. Our interest in ocean acidification is centered on how increased acidity will affect populations of or access to marine resources like salmon, shellfish, groundfish, and seaweed. Nearshore ocean acidification research is still a relatively new field, especially in Alaska, it is still an open question whether OA’s effects are likely to be amplified or attenuated on local scales around Southeast. The Sitka Tribe is still very much at the data-gathering stage of those questions, so our current focus is generating high-quality measurements from multiple places in Sitka Sound and from our partner communities around Southeast. Once our instruments are running well, we will begin integrating our OA data into our ongoing harmful algal bloom and traditional food projects.

Q: What are some of the most notable things you’ve learned about OA in Alaska or in general? 

One of the things that consistently surprises me about OA is that pH (how “acidic” the water is) does not necessarily predict whether shell-forming organisms will have difficulty making their shells. Most shells are made out of aragonite, a carbonate mineral. The stability of aragonite depends in part on pH, but also on the amount of available carbonate, the amount of dissolved carbon dioxide, and the alkalinity of the water, among other things. To effectively put the water’s pH in context, at least one other carbonate system variable needs to be monitored. While I had known that pH does not tell the whole OA story, I was floored to see data showing areas in the Beaufort sea with pHs of 8.1 or higher (as high as anywhere in the ocean) that still could not support shell formation! It will be interesting to see how communities around Southeast compare.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges in your work? 

Since I’m relatively new to OA monitoring, collecting consistent, high-quality data strikes me as our biggest challenge. Many OA instruments are finicky and prone to measurement drift, especially autonomous sensors designed to live on a buoy for months or years at a time. Combine the need for frequent calibration of those instruments with the frequently uncooperative weather that can make it difficult to even access our equipment and it can quickly become difficult to make any meaningful measurements at all.

The other challenge I’m concerned about is the temptation to over-interpret data when working under the short time frames that grants typically require. Alaska does not have a long history of nearshore OA monitoring and nearshore environments typically see much larger pH and dissolved carbon dioxide swings than open-ocean environments do. It will be several years before we’ll be able to start to tease out any true OA signal here in Southeast, although knowing more about our natural chemistry swings will still be useful in the meantime.

Q: What is a really memorable moment from your time in the field or in the lab?

The Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association and the Sitka Sound Science Center recently hosted a roundtable discussion in Sitka about the impacts that ocean acidification will have on commercial fisheries. Jessica Cross, a NOAA Fisheries researcher, gave a short introduction about OA, then opened the floor for questions. The level of engagement was incredible! There were more than 30 local fishermen there, all wondering what we can do to be more proactive about OA and how they might need to change practices in the future. The potential sacrifices those fishermen were willing to discuss in the hopes of reducing pressure on fish stocks and mitigating the effects of OA gave me hope that we’ll be able to start having similar conversations on a national level soon. It’s hard to be optimistic about the fate of commercial or subsistence fisheries given the threats of climate change and OA, but conversations like that roundtable certainly help me to try.

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