By Rep. Lydia Blume
Mainers have strong cultural, historic and economic ties to the ocean. The health of the ocean is critical to our way of life. Ocean acidification is a growing problem that could damage the health of the ocean and have drastic consequences for Maine’s coastal economy.
Ocean acidification results when there is increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up, a large proportion of it – up to 40 percent – gets dissolved in rainwater. From here it ends up in lakes, ponds, rivers and ultimately the ocean.
In addition to the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, nutrients in the runoff from the land, like fertilizer, also increase the amount of carbon dioxide entering the ocean. The increased carbon dioxide reacts with the water to form carbonic acid, making it more acidic.
The increased acidity of sea water impacts marine life. One of the most important effects is how the acid changes the way organisms use calcium. Calcium is critical to the entire food chain in the Gulf of Maine. The planktons, which make up the base of the food chain, decrease in number as the acidity of the ocean rises, and this in turn has an impact on finned fish.
For shellfish, the impact is even more dramatic. The acid interferes with the way shellfish such as clams, mussels, scallops and even the iconic Maine lobster build their shells. It also can corrode shells. If we don’t find and adopt solutions, ocean acidification could cause major problems for most, if not all, of Maine’s commercial fisheries.
Acidification is speeding up. Over the last 250 years the oceans have become approximately 30 percent more acidic. This rate has increased and, unless something changes, the level of acidity in the world’s oceans is expected to double in the next forty years. At that point, the acidity will have reached a point where some marine organisms will fail to spawn or develop.
Ocean acidification is a very complex problem and there aren’t any simple answers. But now is the time to start asking what we know, what we can do about it, and what are the right next steps to find answers to the questions we can’t answer today. Because of the importance of the ocean to Maine, it is crucial that we understand more details about how increasing ocean acidification will affect us and what we can do about it.
To learn more about the most up-to-date studies on the impacts of ocean acidification and more importantly, to learn more about recommendations for remediation and policy changes to limit acidification, I will be attending the full-day symposium sponsored by The Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership coming up on June 29.
The symposium will feature 15 presentations that will share new research, updates and progress reports from the past year on ocean and coastal acidification from around the state and beyond. It will tie in to earlier work done by the state on the problem, specifically the 2015 Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Study Commission’s Report, ordered by the 126th Legislature.
Topics at the symposium will include modeling and monitoring techniques for determining actual and projected levels of acidification, impacts on commercially important species and strategies for reducing acidification.
Ocean acidification has the potential to cripple our coastal economy, and I will be doing all I can to learn more about it and find ways we can act to limit or stop its impacts.
Blume is in her first term in the Maine Legislature, where she serves on the Marine Resources Committee. She represents the coastal part of York.
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Portland, Maine's docks. The fishing industry is threatned by ocean acidification and a state panel is ready to take action. Photo by Ramona du Houx
by Ramona du Houx
The Commission to Study the Effects of Coastal and Ocean Acidification on Commercially Harvested and Grown Species presented its report to the public and unveiled four proposals for the current legislative session that are a result of the panel’s work.
“Maine is taking the lead on ocean acidification on the Eastern seaboard. We understand just how dangerous it is to our marine environment, jobs and way of life,” said Rep. Mick Devin, co-chair of the panel and sponsor of the legislation that created it. “It isn’t just valuable shellfisheries that are at risk, but other parts of our economy like tourism. No one visits the Maine coast looking for a chicken sandwich. Let’s make sure visitors can have a lobster roll, a bowl of clam chowder, a bucket of steamers or a platter of Damariscotta River oysters on the half shell when they come to Maine.”
The 16-member panel – the first of its kind on the East Coast – brought together fishermen, aquaculturists, scientists, legislators and representatives of the executive branch.
Richard Nelson, a Friendship lobsterman and commission member, noted that fishermen, like scientists, must observe their natural surroundings and track various elements of nature as they change over time.
“And although we are keen observers of these trends, we are now realizing that the health and well-being of our fisheries and that of our ocean are not just affected by the actions of a few fisherman or the decisions by our fisheries managers, but by a broad scale of societal choices, from local to global, about energy, runoff and waste water, as well as maintaining and restoring the natural systems of our coastal and ocean environment,” said Nelson.
The commission reviewed the science on ocean acidification and made recommendations on how Maine should address the threat that changing ocean chemistry poses to its marine ecosystem and economy. The commission’s report won the unanimous support of its bipartisan and diverse members.
“Together, we accomplished a really detailed examination of what we know about ocean acidification, what we still need to know more about and other recommendations to both understand and do something about ocean acidification. It’s a much needed first step,” said Sen. Chris Johnson, co-chair of the commission. “A key thing I will tell you is that ocean acidification is real and already impacting some Maine fisheries.”
The water temperature in the Gulf of Maine increased eight times faster that the rest of the world’s oceans in recent years, according to a 2014 study by Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. That temperature shift effects the acidification process.
"As a result, while the shrimp fishery is the first to close in New England primarily as a result of our changing climate, it is unlikely to be the last... Lobster has been disappearing from its traditional habitat in southern New England," wrote former Sen. Olympia Snowe in a recent Newsweek article.
The recommendations of the panel offer a comprehensive approach that fall under six goals:
- invest in Maine’s ability to monitor and investigate the effects of ocean acidification;
- reduce emissions of carbon dioxide;
- reduce local land-based nutrients and organic carbon contributions to acidification;
- increase Maine’s capacity to mitigate, remediate and adapt to the impacts of ocean acidification;
- educate and engage stakeholders, decision-makers and the public and empower them to take action; and
- maintain a sustainable and coordinated focus on ocean acidification.
Legislative members of the panel have introduced four bills informed by the report:
- A $3 million bond proposal for a monitoring program to quantify acid inputs from atmospheric carbon dioxide, river discharges, point sources and chemical reactions affecting clam flats. (Sponsored by Rep. Wayne Parry)
- A measure to help improve land for farming and implement management practices for the watershed. (Sponsored by Sen. Chris Johnson)
- A measure to replace inadequate septic systems that impact nutrient loading and the bacterial contamination of watersheds and bays. (Sponsored by Sen. Chris Johnson)
- A measure to continue the work of the ocean acidification commission, with a sunset of three years. (Sponsored by Rep. Mick Devin)
“As someone who has worked on the water for two decades, I can say firsthand that we need to know where our problem spots are so we can mitigate them,” Rep. Wayne Parry, a commission member and working lobsterman, said of his monitoring bond bill. “It’s critical that we know where, when and how this acidification is taking place.”
Another commission member, Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm, an oyster farm in Walpole, said the panel’s work is just the starting point.
“Maine’s marine resources-based businesses like mine need a lot of information so that financial decisions are based on calculated risks rather than gambles,” he said.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is the greatest factor behind ocean acidification.Nutrient and carbon dioxide from land-based point and non-point sources, such as municipal wastewater treatment facilities, septic failures and runoff, are additional drivers of acidification for estuary and near-shore waters.
The combination of carbon dioxide and seawater forms carbonic acid, which impact species including clams, lobster, shrimp and cold water coral.
Ocean acidification is taking place at a rate at least 100 times faster than at any other time in the past 200,000 years, the commission noted. The Gulf of Maine is more susceptible to ocean acidification than other regions in the United States.
“Ocean acidification is not a hopeless issue. I assure you there is hope for Maine’s coastal health and economy,” said Dr. Meredith White, a commission member and biological oceanographer at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. “Ocean acidification is a global problem, but it can best be addressed at a local level. Maine has taken a historic first step in addressing the issue and that makes it all the more likely we will be prepared to face this challenge head-on.”