Commentary: We can’t afford to be blindsided by ocean acidification, Pingree says

A new measure would identify communities at risk if ocean changes were to affect the lobster fishery.

NORTH HAVEN — For over 40 years now, I’ve lived on North Haven Island in Penobscot Bay. In my recent conversations there with lobstermen and others who work on the water – on North Haven and up and down the coast – one thing has become abundantly clear: The ocean that they and so many others in Maine depend on for their living isn’t the same as it was even 10 years ago.

I commend Press Herald Staff Writer Colin Woodard for his thorough coverage of the many ways climate change is negatively affecting the Gulf of Maine – among them, the shifting habitat of vital species; the boom of invasive species; and rising water temperatures that make it more difficult for pressured populations like cod to rebound. All of these issues have come together in a perfect storm of sorts to threaten the marine biodiversity that Maine’s coastal economy has been built on.

I’m working in Washington to raise alarm bells on these dire threats to the future of our coastal communities. I invite any of my colleagues who continue to ignore the realities of climate change to come to Maine to see it in action and talk to the men and women it’s already affecting.

In particular, I’ve tried to bring federal attention to one effect of climate change that isn’t as visible as others: ocean acidification.

As more carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere, oceans have absorbed much of it, with Maine’s cold waters making an especially good sponge. Along with increased runoff from extreme weather and precipitation, oceans have become 30 percent more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and models predict that pace to quicken sharply.

The changing makeup of the water has a devastating impact on a number of marine species, but especially shellfish. The acidic water makes it more difficult for mussels, oysters and clams, among others, to develop strong shells, leading to higher rates of mortality and decreased numbers.

Though these effects have been well documented, there is a severe lack of information about ocean acidification and a number of questions without clear answers. Two of the biggest I have are: 1) How does ocean acidification affect lobster populations? and 2) What can our communities do to prepare and mitigate the effects?

It’s no secret why the first question would be important here in Maine. As the populations of other kinds of fish have declined, our economy has become increasingly dependent on one species. Lobsters currently make up about 69 percent of our commercial fishing catch, so it’s imperative that we investigate how ocean acidification may affect their health.

But we already know that ocean acidification negatively affects other shellfish species that make significant contributions to our economy. The question then becomes: How should we be helping our communities deal with these impacts now and in the future?

As we turn to face the more visible effects of climate change, we simply can’t afford to be blindsided by ocean acidification. To that end, I’ve introduced federal legislation – H.R. 2553, the Coastal Communities Acidification Act of 2015 – to try to find answers to these and other questions.

The bill would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to identify which communities are most dependent on the ocean and study how acidification would affect them if valuable industries like lobster harvesting were affected. I’m proud that 30 of my colleagues, including nine Republicans, have signed on in support of the bill.

I applaud the leadership of the Maine Legislature in creating a commission to study ocean acidification in Maine. A report that the group released earlier this year notes, “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.”

I completely agree. While I hope the state will move forward in addressing this report’s recommendations, I think the federal government should also do its part in closing the knowledge gap. This is a national problem and one Maine shouldn’t have to deal with alone.

Chellie Pingree, Portland Press Herald, 11 November 2015. Article.


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