Black sea bass is one fish that diners could be seeing more frequently on menus in the future. The mid-Atlantic species already has started moving north into Gulf of Maine waters as the Atlantic Ocean warms. DEREK DAVIS/Portland Press Herald

Ask Sam Hayward, co-owner and founding chef of Fore Street, what the famed Portland restaurant might be serving 50 years from now, and he obligingly jumps into an imaginary time capsule to visit 2069 and check out the menu.

The question assumes that little has been done since 2019 to put the brakes on climate change. It’s likely, Hayward says, that diners at his restaurant would be feasting on black sea bass, a mid-Atlantic species that already has started moving north into Gulf of Maine waters, or local meat raised on abundant Maine pastureland.

“As wild species become more threatened, fish farming will continue to grow, and shellfish farming will grow,” Hayward said. “So you’ll see even more bivalves on the menu, and possibly even some southern species, such as warm-water shrimp, being grown in different places. That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

Farmers and fishermen are used to dealing with the vicissitudes of Mother Nature, but unchecked climate change may push her finicky personality into overdrive. Dramatic fluctuations in temperature and rainfall, increasingly acidic oceans, new plant and shellfish diseases and insect pests – all of these may challenge traditional notions of what farmers can grow in Maine and how they grow it, and what fishermen harvest from the sea. Even the smaller aspects of daily life – such as what you order off a menu – may look vastly different 50 years from now.

Chefs and scientists agree that they would need an actual crystal ball to be sure which meats, fish and vegetables will thrive and which will disappear as climate change transforms the planet. Climate change is a complex issue, and no one knows for certain how plants and animals will respond. For example, scientific models predict a general decline in groundfish such as cod, halibut, haddock and flounder, “but I think there’s some potential that haddock will fare better in the future just because they have these big (population) booms,” said Kathy Mills, a research scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

That means that in 2069, you may still be able to order a cup of your favorite fish chowder. But you might not be able to follow it up with the most iconic of Maine foods – a lobster. Lobster populations are at a historic high, but scientists warn that as the Gulf of Maine continues to warm, the population will decline, perhaps substantially. Lobster may be a splurge you save for birthdays and anniversaries.

“They’ll be much more of a luxury item, I think, if current trends continue,” Hayward said.

As the climate warms, Mainers likely will say goodbye to some familiar foods and learn to incorporate others into their diets. Cod won’t appear on your dinner plate unless it is flown in from Norway or Iceland. Acadian redfish, whose populations are thriving, or squid from southern New England waters may take its place.

Beef, pork and lamb probably won’t disappear from restaurant menus, but could be locally raised or grown in a laboratory to avoid the big carbon footprint of factory farms (why we’re already being urged to eat less meat). Don’t worry about your Sunday brunch of blueberry pancakes slathered in maple syrup, with a side of hash browns. Blueberries, maple syrup and potatoes – all traditional Maine foods – probably aren’t going anywhere in the next 50 years, according to agricultural experts. (After that, we’ll need a bigger crystal ball.)

Before diving into menus, David Levi, chef/owner of Vinland, suggests asking which Portland neighborhoods will even have restaurants in 50 years. Parts of the city could be underwater because of sea level rise.

“If you’re making a reservation for Central Provisions in 2069, make sure you wear a wet suit,” Levi said. “Your galoshes might suffice for Vinland.”

Levi believes that in 50 years, the country will have less access to food from California and Latin America, areas expected to be ravaged by drought and fire, so Americans will be eating more seasonal, local foods. Maine is in a good position for that shift since we have a flourishing organic farming movement, he said.

“We’re already seeing some cutting-edge permaculture, growing things in Maine that people thought we couldn’t grow 20 or 30 years ago,” he said, citing figs and kiwis.

Mark Hutton, vegetable specialist and associate director of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station in Orono, adds to that list foods such as baby ginger, sweet potatoes and artichokes, which are traditionally found in coastal California and Texas but are now being grown in Maine. But he says that improved farming techniques and farmers’ desire to develop new markets have more to do with the success of those unconventional crops than climate change. Climate, he said, “is probably not going to change what we grow. It may change when we grow it, or particularly when we can harvest it.

“Maybe we’ll be like Pennsylvania, where we have field tomatoes maturing in July rather than the end of August,” he said.

Hutton doesn’t think that any vegetable crops will disappear from Maine by 2069, but they may be more expensive to grow, primarily because of sharp fluctuations in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns, and the challenges of dealing with new diseases and insect pests.

The same holds true for potatoes and blueberries. Those mashed potatoes on your plate at Fore Street will probably still come from Maine, but they may be a variety of potato that is less climate sensitive. And growing them may require irrigation or other costly special treatments, says Ellen Mallory, a professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine. “We can adapt,” Mallory said. “The thing I feel like is (a challenge) is the increase in variability of the weather.

“We’ve already seen a dramatic increase in heavy precipitation. The number of extreme rainfall events has increased 74 percent since the 1950s. It’s hard to predict the specific impacts, but we know that just makes the farmers’ job harder.”

Blueberries are resilient plants, so you’ll still be able to order a big, juicy slice of blueberry pie for dessert, according to Lily Calderwood, a wild blueberry specialist and an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Maine. Over the past 30 years, with spring arriving earlier and fall later, the wild blueberry growing season has been extended by about four weeks, she said. And fewer late spring frosts Down East mean that blueberries grow more reliably in fields north of Route 9, Calderwood said.

But like farmers growing vegetable crops, blueberry growers will be fighting new pests and may have to install irrigation systems to fight drought and plump up berries before harvest.

As for maple syrup, it’s true that sugar maples in southern parts of the state may lose ground to species such as red oak and white pine. And smaller maple producers may decide that year-to-year fluctuations in production aren’t worth it anymore, said Andy Whitman, director of the sustainable economies program at Manomet in Brunswick. But he thinks the trees still will be abundant in northern Maine, where the big commercial operations are located. “There will still be significant maple production in Maine,” Whitman said. “It may not be as strong as it is now.”

The beer and wine lists at Maine restaurants in 2069 will feature more beverages made in Maine, experts predicted.

Levi’s wish list for new foods to grow in a warmer Maine includes wine grapes, perhaps the varieties now grown in the cooler wine areas of Europe, places like the Alsace region of France or the Mosel Valley in Germany. But, he added, “I don’t think Maine is going to become Tuscany.”

A more Mediterranean-like climate means that the olive oil you dip your focaccia in might be made from Maine olives, another crop on Levi’s wish list.

Climate change may mean more local grain in Maine’s fields, in turn craft brewers making a greater variety of truly local beer. To see the future, look no farther than the Upper Midwest – Minnesota, North Dakota and far eastern Montana – where the barley line is moving northward at roughly 5 miles per year, according to Chris Swersey, supply chain specialist at the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado. “I would say it’s highly likely that barley will move its way north into Maine” in greater volume, he said.

The news is more alarming when it comes to the seafood. Scientists say the Gulf of Maine is heating up faster than 99 percent of the global oceans. Climate change already has been blamed, in part, for the disappearance of Maine’s mussels and shrimp. Species like cod, which are sensitive to temperature change, are moving to colder waters.

Fishermen and scientists have reported mid-Atlantic species moving northward. Some of those fish could make for good eating, but they also include invasive species such as green crabs. Black sea bass, a firm whitefish common in the waters off New Jersey, are already being pulled up in Maine lobster traps, said Mills, the scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, adding, “I’ve caught them off of Rhode Island, and they’re great to eat.”

Longfin squid have been spotted in waters off the Maine coast, too, Mills said, but not near the shore, so fishermen have not targeted them. During a heat wave in 2012, however, squid moved in closer and stayed there for most of the summer. A small fishery sprang up to take advantage.

Maine may follow in the footsteps of Point Judith in Rhode Island – once a groundfish port, but now primarily a place to catch squid. “It’s sort of the squid capital of the East Coast,” Mills said, “and there’s obviously a large calamari market.”

Experts say that how well we adapt to the impact climate change has on our food systems will depend largely on us as consumers – how flexible we are, and how willing to make changes in our diets. Mainers, Mills said, may have to develop a taste for oily fish like bluefish and mackerel, and Maine chefs will have to learn to prepare it well.

So that’s 50 years. What will the next 100 years bring? A sterile ocean? Collapsed food chains? Drought and starvation? How our great-grandchildren eat a century from now will depend on how seriously we take climate change today.

 

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