At last week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Germany, an issue of vital importance to Maine fishermen and shellfish growers took the international spotlight: the increasing acidity of the sea, which is making it harder for some shellfish to grow their shells.

The governors of Washington state and Oregon joined the fisheries minister of Fiji, the meeting’s official host nation, to announce the expansion of a year-old international alliance to combat the problem. It now includes four states, two Canadian provinces and nine national governments.

Maine isn’t one of them, nor was anyone from Maine state government at the conference.

Nearly three years ago, a bipartisan panel of experts convened by the Legislature concluded that ocean acidification – a byproduct of global warming – represented a potentially catastrophic threat to Maine’s marine harvesters, and issued a series of recommendations for Maine policymakers to enact, many of them focused on closing the information gap about the threat.

But state government and legislators have done little to implement the panel’s recommendations. A Republican-sponsored bill to put a $3 million bond issue on the ballot that would have funded targeted data collection, monitoring, and assessments of the impact on wildlife and commercial fish species never got a floor vote, while lawmakers last year declined to endorse allowing the 16-member panel to continue its work.

“For a state whose identity and economy is so heavily dependent on marine resources, I think it is really shameful that we are not doing enough to look at the threats of changing ocean chemistry,” says Bill Mook, founder of Mook Sea Farm, who had to develop water treatment systems after watching acidic water kill crop after crop of newly hatched oysters. “I think it’s really abdicating responsibility by the leaders of the state.”

Bill Mook, pictured last week at the Mook Sea Farm wharf along the Damariscotta River in Walpole, faults Maine’s poor response to ocean acidification. “For a state whose identity and economy is so heavily dependent on marine resources, I think it is really shameful that we are not doing enough to look at the threats of changing ocean chemistry,” he said. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Instead, leadership has fallen to a volunteer group of Maine scientists and conservationists who, without state funding, are trying to coordinate the expansion of a monitoring system, apply for grants to fund research and participate in meetings with colleagues from other parts of the world working on the issue.

“This is a volunteer partnership with no money, but this bottom-up, ‘let’s do it together and see what we can get done’ is kind of a Maine story,” says Aaron Strong, an assistant professor in marine policy at the University of Maine who sits on the ad hoc group’s steering committee and attended Monday’s international ocean alliance event in Bonn, Germany. “We’re making substantive progress on all the recommendations.”

Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, co-chaired the ocean acidification panel and is participating in the volunteer body that’s replaced it, but he says it is no substitute for official action. “We don’t have the weight of the state government bearing on the ocean acidification problem,” he says. ‘When the Legislature establishes policy for the state, it’s there, it’s concrete. But when we’re forced to do it with volunteers and on a shoestring budget, it isn’t.”

A THREAT TO MARINE LIFE, INDUSTRIES

Acidification, driven by increased carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and freshwater runoff from extreme rainfall in river basins, has been implicated in failures at oyster hatcheries and mussel farms, and has been shown to weaken clams and other shell-building animals vital to Maine’s fishing and aquaculture industries. Nearly 90 percent of the value of Maine’s commercial fish catch comes from such creatures.

Researchers in the Gulf of Maine have documented that free-floating softshell clam larvae avoid burrowing into more acidic mud, which means they spend more time exposed to predators as they seek appropriate habitat; that acidic water conditions stunt clam growth; and that baby oysters have so much trouble building their first shells in acid conditions they often die before they’re completed. The effects on lobster – far and away Maine’s most valuable fishery with a landed value of $630 million last year – remain unclear pending additional research.

“This is an issue that’s not going to go away and that we need to understand,” says Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, who told legislators two years ago that the future of his industry was at stake.

With the official ocean acidification panel disbanded and the Legislature declining to endorse a bond to fund monitoring, many members of the panel decided to convene on a voluntary basis to keep momentum going. Members of the group, the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership, have added ocean chemistry monitoring sites in Casco Bay, agreed among themselves what the priority research projects are to find funding for, and hold public meetings and seminars.

“The disadvantage is that it doesn’t have the obvious public stamp of approval of being approved by the state, but we do have participation from the state agencies,” says Susie Arnold, a marine scientist at the Rockland-based Island Institute who is one of the leaders of the effort. “There wasn’t a lot of support from the state to have the departments participate mandatorily, but they have been coming on a voluntary basis, which we’ve found is a really successful way for them to be involved.”

Rep. Devin puts blame for inaction squarely on the governor. “It’s the governor and a few of his minions that have blocked the ocean acidification bills,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to do anything environmental with Governor LePage in office.”

Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, a marine biologist at Darling Marine Center in Walpole, a village of South Bristol, works the mud flats in the Damariscotta River in 2015. Devin, who participates in the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership, lays the blame for lack of official action on ocean acidification on Maine Gov. Paul LePage. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Peter Steele, a spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage, would not provide a statement on the administration’s position and reasoning on the issue, forwarding instead a copy of former Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho’s 2015 legislative testimony opposing the continued operation of the ocean acidification panel on the grounds that existing efforts were sufficient.

Unable to secure funds for monitoring and research, Devin says he personally made sure the wording of the $50 million research and development bond put forward to and approved by voters in June allowed applications for this purpose. University of Maine researchers are preparing an application for the associated grant competition administered by the Maine Technology Institute.

“I counted this as a victory given who the governor is,” Devin says bluntly.

FEDERAL LEVEL ALSO DISENGAGED

The situation has parallels on the federal level, according to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, the Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, who has for two years been trying to pass a bill that would direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess the likely impacts of acidification on coastal communities and identify gaps in knowledge. It has four Republican co-sponsors – 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin is not one of them – but faces slim prospects on Capitol Hill.

“There’s always a chance the Republicans will take it up, but the committee chair is particularly resistant to anything related to climate change,” says Pingree, referring to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the panel that would review the bill.

The stakes for Maine, she says, are high. “We not only have an economic dependence on fisheries, but we have a very strong cultural dependence on fisheries and because ocean acidification concentrates its impacts on the shellfish industry and we don’t know very much about it, it is very critical that we do more research and that we prepare for it.”

The White House, for its part, is seeking to eliminate many of the programs that fund key members of Maine’s volunteer ocean acidification committee, including those supporting the University of Maine Sea Grant program (whose website hosts its activities), the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership (which maintains many of the monitoring devices), and the Wells Reserve (which maintains another). However, neither chamber of the Republican-controlled Congress appears interested in cutting these programs, according to current versions of their 2018 budget bills and reports.

President Trump also announced he will pull out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the United States is now the only U.N. member state that is opposed to the international effort to voluntarily reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

OTHER STATES TAKING VIGOROUS ACTION

Some coastal states have taken a much more proactive approach to the issue.

Washington state, worried about the threat to its own $270 million shellfish industry, convened a blue-ribbon panel whose November 2012 findings helped inform the Maine commission’s study. The state, which has had a divided legislature, has since passed bills creating and providing some $6 million in funds to a special research institute at the University of Washington dedicated to studying the problem. It also created a permanent standing committee to coordinate the effort and joined California, Oregon and British Columbia in creating a regionwide coalition to confront the issue.

“The university has been doing forecasting work to predict like a weather forecast where the most corrosive waters are going to be occurring,” Julie Horowitz, senior policy adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, said via telephone from Bonn, where she and her boss were attending the U.N. conference. “If you’re a shellfish grower, the idea is to be able to say: ‘Here’s the forecast for the next day or week.’ ”

Their regional alliance has since gone global. In Bonn on Monday, an international network it founded welcomed Fiji and Sweden as members and Inslee called on world leaders to take bold action on the issue. “We need a strong coalition talking about the need for global carbon emissions reductions to address ocean acidification,” Horowitz explained. “It’s vitally important to elevate ocean issues on the U.N. Conference of Parties’ agenda and we need all the help from each other to get to that.”

The volunteer Maine group has been conferring with California, Washington and other governments in the regional alliance, had representatives in Bonn, and is hoping to join the international alliance as an affiliate member, alongside other nonprofits, universities and companies concerned about the issue. “Being able to work directly with the folks who are working hard on this in other states and countries, that was the most meaningful part of my experience here,” Strong of the University of Maine said of his attendance in Bonn. “It’s great to have Maine have a little taste of being part of the world stage.”