How we are dropping acid. Into the ocean, that is

A couple of decades ago, on a trip to the United Nations the headquarters, I was an observer during two days of sessions while several hundred international delegates debated provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Having witnessed a decade’s-worth of fruitless efforts by New England fisheries organizations trying to arrest the slow-motion decline of the cod and haddock groundfish industry from overfishing in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, I felt like a veteran observer of hopeless political discussions.

The debate at the U.N. was whether the delegates should incorporate the “precautionary principle” with respect to managing fisheries into the convention. The precautionary principle became defined as: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Although the Law of the Sea Convention came into force in 1994 after the 60th nation – Guyana – ratified the Convention, Maine and New England fisheries representatives had not been capable of applying the precautionary principle to groundfishing, where the industry has virtually collapsed in the years since.

But maybe there is hope – if not for groundfish – perhaps for shellfish such as clams, oysters, mussels and lobsters. Last week a little-noted piece of legislation became law in Maine after the legislature passed a bill to create a commission to study the effects of ocean acidification on commercial shellfish in Maine. This is a good example of the precautionary principle at work.

Scientists have long understood that the absorption of carbon dioxide emissions into the ocean changes the chemistry of seawater through a process called ocean acidification. Although the acidity of the ocean has remained stable for the past 600,000 years, scientists have determined that during the last 200 years the ocean’s acidity has increased by 30 percent – a rate of increase that is 100 times faster than anytime in the last 65 million years.

The Gulf of Maine has been identified as being uniquely susceptible to ocean acidification, with its cold temperatures and high amounts of freshwater input lowering its buffering capacity. Marine organisms that secrete shells or skeletons are most vulnerable to ocean acidification because acidity can interfere with shell building processes in young shellfish.

Here in Maine, 70 percent of our state’s fisheries are shellfish, including clams, oysters, urchins, scallops and lobsters. Lobsters alone account for about two-thirds of the value of all fisheries landings in the state with a value of over $340 million in 2013 and an overall contribution of around $1 billion to the state economy.

The current law’s chief sponsor, Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, is a marine biologist and hatchery manager at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole. In a press release issued last week, Devlin noted, “Maine is taking the lead on ocean acidification,” and added that the law is the first measure on the Eastern seaboard to address the threat of acidification. “We understand just how dangerous it is to our marine environment, jobs and way of life.”

A study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2007 found that changes in ocean chemistry that were not expected for another 50 to 100 years were already present along the West Coast. These changes have led to the failure of shellfish hatcheries in Washington state.

Bill Mook, an oyster farmer and owner of Mook Sea Farm in Damariscotta since 1985, spoke in favor the bill before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources this past January. Mook’s business sells hatchery seed to growers from Maine to Virginia and supports the half shell market. Over the past five years, Mook has come to suspect ocean acidification for causing the hatchery to “sputter.”

“Shellfish hatcheries have been likened to canaries in coal mines,” Mook said. “If ocean acidification is making Mook Sea Farm’s check engine light come on, then we should be very concerned about wild shellfish larvae.” Other supporters of the bill included lobstermen and representatives from the Island Institute, the Sierra Club, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and the Department of Marine Resources.

The concerns about the consequences of the increasing loads of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere have caused a great deal of political controversy across the country and in Washington D.C., especially during the past five years. In June, the EPA is expected to reveal a proposal to cut back on pollution from existing power plants, part of President Barack Obama’s climate change strategy. A court challenge to that proposal is almost guaranteed.

But here in Maine, which benefits from generally more pragmatic political discussions, we seem to have taken a precautionary approach to the highly politicized question of whether carbon dioxide pollution is a serious threat to our most valuable shellfish fisheries, in contrast to the experience of the debate over our cod and haddock fisheries.

Maybe we are learning.

Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.