AUGUSTA — Maine should increase research and monitoring into how rising acidity levels in oceans could harm the state’s valuable commercial fisheries while taking additional steps to reduce local pollution that can affect water chemistry.
Those are two major recommendations of a state commission charged with assessing the potential effects of ocean acidification on lobster, clams and other shellfish. The Legislature created the commission this year in response to concerns that, as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen, the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic because oceans absorb the gas.
Researchers are concerned that organisms that form shells – everything from Maine’s iconic lobster to shrimp and the tiny plankton that are key links in the food chain – could find it more difficult to produce calcium carbonate for shells in more acidic seawater. They worry that the acidification could intensify as carbon levels rise and the climate warms.
Although research on Maine-specific species is limited, the commission of scientists, fishermen, lawmakers and LePage administration officials said the findings are “already compelling” enough to warrant action at the state and local level.
“While scientific research on the effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and individual organisms is still in its infancy, Maine’s coastal communities need not wait for a global solution to address a locally exacerbated problem that is compromising their marine environment,” according to an unofficial version of the report unanimously endorsed by commission members Monday.
The panel’s report will be presented to the Legislature after Monday’s final edits are incorporated. Those recommendations include:
• Work with the federal government, fishermen, environmental groups and trained citizens to actively monitor acidity changes in the water or sediments, and organisms’ response to those changes.
• Conduct more research across various species and age groups to get a better sense of how acidification is affecting the ecosystem.
• Identify ways to further reduce local and regional emissions of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas produced by the combustion of fossil fuels – and to reduce runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that can contribute to acidification.
• Reduce the impact of acidification through natural methods, such as increasing the amount of photosynthesizing marine vegetation like eelgrass and kelp, promoting production of filter-feeding shellfish operations, and spreading pulverized shells in mudflats with high acidity.
• Create an ongoing ocean acidification council to monitor the situation, recommend additional steps and educate the public. This recommendation is the only concrete legislative proposal contained within the report.
Commission member Joe Payne of the nonprofit group Friends of Casco Bay said he is “absolutely” confident that acidification is affecting shellfish in the Portland area. In its own research, Friends of Casco Bay has shown a potential link between acidity levels and shellfish development, as well as documented high acidity levels in mudflats that no longer support profitable clamming.
“I’m very positive about the outcome” of the commission, Payne said. “Now there is at least a road map for Maine and it deals with some things we can do locally. And that’s what I’m excited about because you lose some people when you talk globally.”
Bill Mook with Mook Sea Farm, an oyster aquaculture operation on the Damariscotta River in Walpole, said he has serious concerns about the impact of ocean acidification on Maine’s shellfish industry. After serving on the panel, Mook said his next mission will be to fight to make sure ocean acidification research programs are fully funded at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“What I hope people get out of this is (that) we don’t know what is coming at us,” said Mook, one of three representatives of the commercial fishing industry on the panel. “The big take-home message is how woefully inadequate the information is.”
Susie Arnold, a marine scientist with the Island Institute, said she hopes some Maine researchers will receive a share of soon-to-be-announced NOAA funding for ocean acidification projects so scientists can begin filling in the gaps about potential impacts on lobster or other Maine shellfish. But Arnold also was pleased that the commission report contains several proposals that could be pursued without regulations.
Rep. Mick Devin, House chairman of the panel, said ocean acidification “is a real threat to Maine’s marine environment and the thousands of jobs that rely on its health.”
“Maine has too much at stake to simply wait on others to come up with a global solution,” Devin, D-Newcastle, said in a written statement. We must take steps at the state and local levels to protect our marine resources and our coastal economy.”