Maine Report Warns Of ‘Urgent’ Need To Address Ocean Acidification

CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Brandon Demmons measures the carapace, the shell of the lobster, to determine if the crustacean is within the legal size limits while working as a sternman aboard aboard a lobster fishing boat off of Monhegan Island, Maine, Tuesday, July 29, 2014.

Maine will soon need to make “hard decisions” on what to do to protect its rapidly acidifying waters, according to a new report.

The report, released Thursday by a commission charged with studying the impacts ocean acidification has on Maine’s marine environment creatures — including lucrative lobsters and other crustaceans — states that, for Maine and its seafood industry, addressing ocean acidification is an “urgent” matter. After reviewing the scientific literature on ocean acidification, the panel, which contained marine scientists, state lawmakers, a fisherman, members of an environmental group, and others, said that Maine — and the U.S. in general — needed more research on ocean acidification and its impacts.

“Perhaps the most alarming of the commission’s findings is how much we do not know about ocean acidification and how it will affect Maine’s commercially important species, including the iconic lobster,” the report’s authors write.

Ocean acidification is an often-ignored effect of carbon pollution — increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere not only trap heat, but also saturate the oceans, creating higher levels of carbonic acid. This makes the water more acidic, which endangers marine life, including corals, shellfish and plankton.

The commission spells out six goals in the report that Maine should meet if it wants to seriously address ocean acidification. The first is to invest in more research on ocean acidification and how it’s affecting Maine’s seafood industry, and the others include reducing carbon dioxide emissions, finding ways for Maine to mitigate and adapt to ocean acidification, and strengthening efforts to limit runoff from farms and other sources. The commission also is recommending that Maine set up a permanent council that will continue to study ocean acidification and advise lawmakers on the best ways to address it.

Richard Nelson, a Maine lobsterman and member of the commission, said that the threats that ocean acidification and climate change pose to lobsters are troubling to him. One study has found that ocean acidification makes lobsters develop more slowly, and another found that rising ocean temperatures could be making baby lobsters harder to come by off the coast of Maine. Nelson said that, without lobster, many Maine towns would be in trouble financially. Maine’s fishermen used to fish for multiple species throughout the year — groundfish during some seasons and scallops and lobsters during others. But depleted stocks have forced fishermen to become heavily reliant on lobster.

“A lot of Maine has turned into single-species fishery now,” Nelson said. “Lobster’s about the only game in town. The problem is, if something now happens to the lobster, there’s a lot of communities that are totally reliant economically on lobsters.”

Nelson’s not only worried about lobsters themselves, though. He said he’s concerned about the entire ocean foodchain, especially the creatures at the bottom of it, like plankton, that have a hard time building their shells in an overly-acidic environment.

And Nelson’s also not the only fishermen who’s worried about the impacts climate change and ocean acidification will have on his industry — and on the ocean as a whole. A poll last month by the Center for American Progress found that 65 percent of commercial fishermen in New England think that climate change could one day force them out of the fishing industry. It also found that about 40 percent think changes in the ocean are a “bad thing” for their business, and that 63 percent of Maine lobstermen had noticed “warmer water temperatures” while fishing.

Scientists have recommended canceling Maine’s shrimp season two years in a row due to massive die-offs caused in part by increasing ocean temperatures.

Maine lawmakers appear poised to take the issue seriously, however. On Thursday, lawmakers introduced four bills aimed at slowing acidification off the coast of Maine. Two of the bills would limit runoff pollution, which, in addition to carbon dioxide emissions, contributes to ocean acidification, and one would create a $3 million bond to monitor pollution sources along Maine’s coast. The fourth would ensure the ocean acidification commission remains in operation for the next three years.

These bills might run into some trouble from Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage (R), who denies the reality of climate change and has vetoed legislation in the past that would have created working group to deliver proposals for how the state can adapt to climate change. But the lawmakers in charge of the bills aren’t backing down just yet.

“Our marine economy is at stake here, said Maine Rep. Mick Devin (D). “The lobster fishery alone is worth $1 billion. No one comes to the Maine coast to eat a chicken sandwich. We lose our lobster, we lose our clams? We’ll lose tourism as well.”