Calling proposed cuts in federal science funding “unacceptable,” U.S. Sen. Angus King told lobster researchers Monday that data is the key to protecting Maine’s most valuable fishery.

Maine’s independent senator asked the 250 biologists, oceanographers and fishery managers at a global conference on lobster biology in Portland this week to give him data on the impact of the changing sea environment on lobster, including temperature, salinity and acidification, and whether that is prompting a migration of Maine’s $533.1 million a year fishery to Canada.

“If lobsters are moving toward Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, that’s a serious practical issue that will get the attention of politicians,” he said. “It’s when you start seeing jobs go away that politicians start saying ‘Gee, we’d better do something about this.’ Are they moving, if they are why, and if they are, what’s the timing? Is it five years? Twenty years? A hundred years?”

But federal funding for scientific research is under fire. President Trump’s budget calls for a 17 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the national fisheries programs and funded almost a fifth of Maine Department of Marine Resources’ annual budget. It would eliminate the Sea Grant program, which funds research by the University of Maine’s Rick Wahle, conference co-chairman, among others.

“The lobster industry in New England is valued at close to $500 million and yet we know very little about how ocean acidification may affect this species,” Libby Jewett, NOAA’s ocean acidification director, said last fall when awarding Wahle’s team a $200,000 grant for lobster research. “These projects should help move the needle forward in our understanding and, as a result, enable broader resilience in the region.”

King said it is unlikely that Trump’s budget, containing what he considers drastic cuts in scientific funding, will pass Congress.

“The last thing we should be doing on a federal level is cutting research funding,” King said. “That is one of the most important functions of the federal government, whether it is climate change or cancer. It’s how we solve problems. To cut research, and particularly to cut research when you get the feeling that the motivation is that we don’t want to know, is unacceptable. … Congress understands this.”

While he thinks funding for science will continue, King said he can’t guarantee the safety of anything, much less for any particular type of funding, such as fisheries research that might be construed as evidence of climate change, a scientific conclusion that some in Trump’s administration reject, and some others argue is not a result of human activities.

On the state level, the Department of Marine Resources is trying to increase its science budget. It wants to use $660,000 of the fishing license revenue it used to send to the state General Fund to create the Coastal Fisheries, Research, Management and Opportunity Fund to support hiring an additional lobster scientist, who will, if approved, become the lead on lobster research in Maine. That would give the state two lobster biologists.

The funding also would allow the purchase of technology that enables remote data entry by department science staffers, who now spend as much as 28 percent of their time entering data in the field instead of conducting actual research and data analysis, department spokesman Jeff Nichols said. Over the past 12 years, the department’s lobster research funding has declined, he said, while the industry’s economic importance has grown.

While other organizations conduct lobster research, DMR conducts the science that informs the regulations that impact the resource, Nichols said. No other organization has as direct an impact on the health of the resource, and the bottom line of those who make a living on Maine’s coastal waters, he said. Unlike many marine fisheries, most lobstering is conducted within state waters, and is managed by the state.

“While we are currently enjoying a period of historic abundance, we know the rapidly increasing temperatures in the Gulf of Maine will result in a change,” Nichols said. “It’s critical that we have adequate scientific resources in Maine to inform management measures that can adapt to this change and prevent a collapse similar to what has occurred in southern New England.”

The fate of the department’s effort to increase lobster research funding is tied to state budget negotiations in which lawmakers are trying to work out a compromise over a 3 percent tax surcharge on wealthy Mainers and education reforms included in Gov. Paul LePage’s initial $6.8 billion budget. If lawmakers do not pass a budget before the end of the month, state government would shut down.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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