CONTRIBUTORS

How shifting ocean chemistry threatens Maine

Posted Oct. 27, 2013, at 1:16 p.m.
Mick Devin
Courtesy photo
Mick Devin

An environmental crisis is looming on the marine horizon. Ocean acidification threatens Maine’s inshore fisheries, growing aquaculture industry and the jobs that rely on them.

The culprit in this story is carbon dioxide. It’s changing the chemistry of the ocean and endangering shellfish like lobster, oysters, clams and sea urchins.

The oceans are naturally slightly basic, or alkaline. But as the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide resulting from fossil fuels use, they move toward the other end of the pH scale, becoming acidic. The acidity level of the oceans has increased 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution.

Increased carbon dioxide in the ocean leads to the formation of carbonic acid. Have you ever used vinegar and baking soda for household cleaning? Imagine how that fizzing combination works on stains. That’s essentially what carbonic acid is doing to the shells of crustaceans and mollusks.

Carbonic acid dissolves clam and oyster shells and stunts the growth of juvenile lobsters. It affects the calcium carbonate skeletal hard parts of crustaceans, sea urchins and marine worms — all important commercially to Maine.

I’ve submitted a bill to address ocean acidification and its harmful effects on Maine’s commercial shellfish harvest.

The bill would establish an 11-member panel to review existing data and literature on ocean acidification and make recommendations to the Legislature on how to deal with the potential impacts of reduced pH in Maine’s marine waters. Commercial fishermen, scientists, fishery managers, legislators and other interested stakeholders would make up the panel.

Maine must act. If left unchecked, ocean acidification could cause major losses to all our major inshore shellfisheries. Thousands of jobs and billions of dollars are at risk.

Ocean acidification has already had frightening effects. Billions of juvenile oysters in the Pacific Northwest have died because of it. The growth rate of coral reefs is slowing down because of it. The shells of marine snails called pteropods, an important food source for other species like salmon, are dissolving because of it.

And these changes in ocean chemistry can shift quickly. In 2007, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers discovered changes on the West Coast that they had not expected to see for 50 to 100 more years. A similar surprise took place in the Gulf of Alaska a couple of years later.

We don’t want Maine to be next. We have too much to lose.

If stretched out, Maine’s jagged coastline would extend down the East Coast, wrap around Florida and continue to the Gulf Coast of Texas. Our inshore waters support more than 10,000 fishermen and an aquaculture industry with enormous growth potential.

When considering landings, processing, retail sales as well as tourism, Maine’s shellfish fisheries and aquaculture are valued in excess of a billion dollars annually.

My bill is modeled after a similar commission established in Washington State several years ago after shellfish hatcheries completely failed due to ocean acidification. We have a chance to act before Maine faces devastating effects.

The Legislature needs to direct the conversation and ensure the Department of Marine Resources and other state agencies have a seat at the table. Fishermen, scientists, fisheries managers and groups like the Island Institute need to work together to develop sound marine policy so Maine places itself in the best possible position.

Because our commercial fisheries are vital to economic well-being, Maine should take the lead on the Atlantic coast as Washington has done on the Pacific coast. Ultimately, ocean acidification is a problem that is of national and international concern.

Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, is a first-term legislator who serves on the Marine Resources Committee. He is a marine biologist who works at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole.

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