Northeast
The Penobscot River flows through the area where the Veazie Dam once stood. The dam, along with the Great Works Dam farther downstream, was removed in an effort to allow salmon easier passage to spawning grounds upriver from the dam. The salmon face a new threat, though, with the increase in the water temperature in the Gulf of Maine. GREGORY REC/Portland Press Herald

Maine finally addressing climate change in the gulf

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

AUGUSTA — After years of inaction, Maine’s government is finally tackling the rapid warming of the Gulf of Maine.

The Gulf of Maine is the second fastest-warming part of the entire world ocean, a side effect of climate change and the Arctic meltdown, with dramatic implications for life on the Maine coast. As the crisis has unfolded, Maine’s government has avoided taking actionthat would help the state understand and prepare for the impacts, including ocean acidification, a potentially catastrophic threat to Maine’s marine harvesters.

That has changed suddenly with the end of the eight-year administration of Gov. Paul LePage, who dismissed the scientific evidence that human activity is driving climate change, and the Democratic takeover of the Blaine House and both chambers of the state Legislature this past January.

Gov. Janet Mills has made addressing climate change a pillar of her administration, and in June she secured passage of aggressive legislation to reduce Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions, jumpstart renewable energy, and assess and address sea level rise, ocean acidification, and other impacts.

“We strongly support what the governor is doing,” says Ivy Frignoca of the Friends of Casco Bay, who has been helping lead an ad hoc group of scientists, environmentalists and others who worked to respond to the ocean acidification challenge when state officials would not. “There’s a strong recommendation in the bill to look at how climate change is impacting the oceans and how important it is to focus on remediation and adaptation.”

The climate bill, which Mills signed into law on June 26, requires Maine to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and by at least 80 percent by 2050. It created a 35-member Maine Climate Council tasked with developing specific plans to meet these goals, as well as monitoring the effects of ocean acidification, warming ocean temperatures, and changes in the salt and dissolved oxygen content of the gulf, an expected side effect of warming. It holds its inaugural meeting later this month.

Ocean acidification is one of the more serious challenges facing the gulf, a problem tied to the increased carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere, which are more than 70 percent higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution. The levels would be worse but for the fact that the oceans absorb some of that additional CO2, but that has caused them to become 30 percent more acidic over this period, a condition that interferes with the chemical processes by which clams, oysters and other organisms grow their shells.

Acidification has been implicated in failures at Maine oyster hatcheries and mussel farms, and has been shown to weaken clams and other shell-building animals vital to the state’s fishing and aquaculture industries. Nearly 90 percent of the value of Maine’s commercial fish catch comes from such creatures.

Four years ago, Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, told legislators the future of his industry was at stake. Now he’s relieved Maine government is finally taking action.

“Mills deserves a great deal of credit for taking what can be a controversial subject and taking a practical approach to it, trying not to have it become a hyperbolic political football,” Belle says.

Under LePage, scientists and conservationists concerned about the issue made the strategic decision to deal with it separately, so that it wouldn’t get sucked into the political – and highly partisan – war over climate change.

“’Climate change’ was a dirty term politically in Maine, and people didn’t think it was real or didn’t want to react to it,” says Aaron Strong, a marine and climate policy researcher who helped lead the volunteer group of scientists and environmentalists who tried to respond to the threat, the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership. “To make progress in ocean acidification research, the idea was to separate it, because there isn’t really a big ocean acidification denial community.”

“Now the calculus is different,” he says, and backs the Mills administration’s decision to fold ocean acidification into the Climate Council’s work.

The administration will officially launch the council – whose members include the commissioners of most government departments – Sept. 26 in Augusta. The council and its subcommittees will start meeting in October and will begin drawing up its final plan next summer, ahead of the statutory deadline of Dec. 1, 2020, said Hannah Pingree, who co-chairs the council and directs the governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future.

“Maine is behind a lot of other states, but we are trying to catch up,” Pingree says.

Julie Rabinowitz, LePage’s former spokeswoman and the head of his political organization, Maine People Before Politics, did not respond to a request for comment from the former governor.

While Maine’s effort is ramping up, there’s little help from Washington.

Under President Trump, the federal government has shied away from substantive action on climate issues. Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate change accord – the primary mechanism by which the world’s nations have tried to respond – and he has repeatedly tried to eliminate funding for many of the key programs that support Gulf of Maine climate initiatives, including Maine Sea Grant, the National Estuarine Research Reserves Program and the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuaries Program.

The U.S. House of Representatives, which the Democrats control, passed a bill on June 5pushed by 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, that directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess the likely impacts of acidification on coastal communities and identify gaps in knowledge.

More than three months later, the Senate version of the bill remains in limbo, despite being introduced by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and co-sponsored by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, also a Republican, and independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats.

Tomorrow: Woodlot owners look for role in carbon offset programs

See Biddeford Journal Tribune article . . .