Maine becomes first east coast state to study, plan, and prepare for ocean acidification

Portland's dockland workers fix nets for their boats. Thier livelyhoods are at risk because of ocean acidification as it effects shell fish dramatically. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Article by Ramona du Houx

Research tells us the world’s ocean water is becoming more acidic, and that endangers shellfish and other marine animals. Marine scientists are worried and so are businesses that rely on the ocean for their livelihoods.  To better understand the problem and to help find solutions the Maine Legislature voted overwhelmingly to form the Maine Ocean Acidification Commission. The 16-member panel was announced on the Portland waterfront with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. The Congresswoman has introduced a bill that would require federal officials to study the effects of ocean acidification on coastal communities in Maine and around the country.

"Ocean acidification could be a real threat to the fisheries that are the lifeblood of coastal communities. The truth is we don't fully understand how it would impact a vital industry like the lobster fishery and what the effect would be on Maine," said Pingree. "We know what's causing ocean acidification but now we need to better understand how hard it is going to hit coastal economies."

Under Pingree’s legislation, the Secretary of Commerce would be required to conduct studies to identify which communities are most dependent on ocean resources and how acidification would affect them if valuable industries were impacted.

“Maine is taking the lead on ocean acidification on the Eastern seaboard. We understand that it is a real threat to our marine environment, jobs and way of life," said Rep. Mick Devin, the House chair of the State Commission and a marine biologist who sponsored the legislation that created the panel.

Maine’s marine shellfisheries employ thousands of harvesters whose livelyhoods are endager because of ocean acidifacation. Lobstermen will be effected, like this Belfast Bay fisherman. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Ocean scientists estimate that the acidity of the world’s oceans has increased 30 percent in the last century.  Increased carbon pollution, mainly from power plants is to blame. Carbon emissions fall to earth and get absorbed by the ocean forming carbonic acid.  This increased acid content, or acidification, dissolves the shells of shellfish and impairs their ability to grow, reproduce, and fight off disease.

Maine’s marine shellfisheries employ thousands of harvesters.  The industry brings hundreds of millions of dollars into Maine’s economy annually, according to the Department of Marine Resources.

“In the years we've been in the business, we've battled all kinds of adversities: silting from storms, green crab invasions, poachers,” said Eric Horne, an oyster farmer from Freeport. “So The concern many of us growers have is the very real possibility of facing an adversity that cannot be easily mitigated: a change in our ocean's chemistry that makes the water too acidic for shellfish production.”

The State Commission includes five members of the legislature, three members of state government agencies, and eight members of the public.  The commission must complete its work by December 5, 2104.  It will report its findings to the Maine Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee and the committee is authorized to report out proposed legislation based upon the commission's recommendations.

Maine's tourism industry could suffer with the loss of our seafood staples. Photo by Ramona du Houx

“If unchecked, ocean acidification will cause some major problems for most, if not all, of Maine’s commercial fisheries,” said State Senator Chris Johnson, who will be co-chairing the commission with Rep. Devin. “Now is the time for Maine to look at how ocean acidification is affecting our marine resources and what we can do to mitigate the problems. Our marine resources, and our way of life, depend on it.” 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 70 percent of carbon pollution is the result of burning fossil fuels. It is estimated that about one third of that carbon pollution is absorbed by the ocean.  Local sources of nitrogen pollution make matters worse. Run-off from city streets and fertilized lawns, sewage, and stormwater overflows send nitrogen into the ocean, where algae blooms release even more carbon dioxide into the water and mud.

Ocean acidification could displace thousands of Maine's Lobstermen. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Researchers say ocean acidification is one of the biggest challenges Maine will face in the coming years.  Maine’s economy is the most dependent on marine resources than any other northeastern state.  Many of the state’s shellfish species live in coastal and estuarine regions, which are particularly vulnerable to acidification.

 “Maine is taking the lead in responding to threats to our natural resources and developing innovative ways to protect our local economies and our way of life,” said Beth Ahearn, Program Manager for Maine Conservation Alliance. “We also need common sense action at a national level to reduce carbon pollution. The EPA’s recent proposal to establish first-ever limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants will benefit Maine families and communities that make their living from our healthy fisheries.”

Portland's dockland gets ready for a catch brought in. Photo by Ramona du Houx