Commission on ocean acidification begins work to protect Maine’s coastal economy

Maine becomes first state on east coast to take proactive approach to study, plan, and prepare

(PORTLAND) The world’s ocean water is becoming more acidic, and that spells trouble for shellfish like clams and oysters, say marine scientists.  In order to get a handle on the problem as well as possible solutions, the Maine Legislature voted overwhelmingly in April to form the Maine Ocean Acidification Commission.  Today the 16-member panel was announced at a gathering on the Portland waterfront that featured U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree, commission co-chairman Chris Johnson, and a demonstration of the acidification process by Joe Payne, Casco Baykeeper.

“This commission is the first of its kind on the east coast,” said Beth Ahearn, Program Manager for Maine Conservation Alliance.  “There is no doubt that the time to act is now. This marks an important step forward in protecting Maine’s shellfish and coastal jobs from the growing threat of ocean acidification.”

Last month Congresswoman Pingree introduced a bill that would require federal officials to study the effects of ocean acidification on coastal communities in Maine and around the country. Under her 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.

“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,” Pingree said. “We know what’s causing ocean acidification but now we need to better understand how hard it is going to hit coastal economies.”

Ocean scientists estimate that the acidity of the world’s oceans has increased 30% in the last century.  The culprit is increased carbon pollution, which gets absorbed by the ocean and forms carbonic acid.  This increased acid content, or acidification, weakens or dissolves the shells of small clams, oysters, and other shellfish and impairs their ability to grow, reproduce, and fight off disease.

“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, D-Newcastle, the House chair of the commission and a marine biologist who sponsored the legislation creating the panel. “The commission brings together talented individuals who will address this threat head-on and find ways to protect our marine resources and economies.”

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

Members of the commission include five members of the legislature, three members of state government agencies, and eight members of the public.  The commission is scheduled to meet a minimum of four times and 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 a bill based upon the commission’s recommendations.

“Ocean acidification could pose critical problems for the fish and shellfish along our coast, and for the people who depend on them to make a living,” said Senator Chris Johnson, a Democrat from Somerville who will be co-chairing the commission with Rep. Devin. “We need to know what those problems are, and how to limit the impacts of ocean acidification on our environment and our economy.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 70% of carbon pollution is the result of burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity.  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.

Joe Payne, Casco Baykeeper and member of the newly formed commission used dry ice to demonstrate how carbon dioxide changes the acid (pH) levels of sea water.  Payne remarked, “Sea creatures whose shells are made of calcium carbonate, like these five clam spat, can dissolve in more acidic water. We have found that the pH on some flats in Casco Bay have dramatically low pHs, pH that will dissolve clam spat.  Coastal acidification is here, right now, and soon we’ll be seeing the effects on clams and on the families that depend on harvesting them for their livelihood.”

Researchers say ocean acidification is one of the biggest challenges Maine will face in the coming years.  Maine’s economy depends more on marine resources than any other state in the northeast.  Many of the commercially important species in Maine live in coastal and estuarine regions, which are particularly vulnerable to acidification.  And scientists believe the Gulf of Maine is more susceptible to ocean acidification and could reach critical thresholds more quickly than the southeastern seaboard or Gulf of Mexico because it is less buffered and because cold water holds more carbon dioxide.

“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. “Some of these adversities we can mitigate but 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.  I am pleased that Maine is taking steps to examine this important issue before the impacts become devastating.”

“We cannot put Maine’s marine shellfisheries at greater risk,” added Ahearn. “We can be proud that once again, 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.  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.”

Contact: Beth Ahearn (207) 671-5071

Maine Conservation Voters & Environmental Priorities Coalition, 27 June 2014. Press release.

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