AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of lawmakers, fishermen, scientists and state officials are embarking on a gargantuan task: Develop a plan for Maine — a state of fewer than 2 million people — to address the global crisis of ocean acidification.
A commission established this year by the Legislature made Maine the first state on the East Coast to tackle increasing acidity that threatens marine wildlife and the state’s lucrative fisheries.
That panel held its second meeting this week and is on schedule to deliver a report of recommendations to the Legislature in December. Central to its task is developing ways that Maine can try to limit the effects of ocean acidification.
That’s no small job, considering much of the cause of increasing acidity happens far from Maine’s coast, outside the jurisdiction of the state Legislature.
All told, the pH level in the Gulf of Maine has gone from a 8.2 — where it remained roughly steady for 600,000 years — to 8.1 in the course of a few centuries, according to the Rockland-based Island Institute.
That may not seem like much, but that’s because pH scale is logarithmic. Sara Young, a marine scientist with Oceana, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit ocean conservation group, says it’s helpful to think of it another way:
“The acidity of the ocean surface has increased 30 percent since the industrial revolution,” she said Thursday. “That 0.1 change is actually a huge deal.”
Young said acidification is caused mostly by the world’s oceans absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, but other sources from the land — such as runoff of nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorous from human activity — compound the problem.
So while the issue is global in scale, efforts at the local level aren’t fruitless.
“From a shellfish grower’s perspective, the state can do something,” she said. “Washington and Oregon have been very successful in that. You can change the schematic in a coastal shellfish area, so you don’t have such a large die-off in larval shellfish populations.”
Maine shellfish harvesters have been warning about increasingly acidic coastal waters — they call it “dead mud” — since at least three years ago. About the same time, Washington state suffered a rapid die-off in its oyster fishery, where larval oysters were dissolving before they had a chance to mature.
And it’s not just oysters that are affected. Dr. Michael Tlusty, director of ocean sustainability science at Boston’s New England Aquarium, said acidity affects all marine life with calcified shells, including mussels, clams, crabs, lobster, sea urchins and more.
And, he said, preliminary research at the aquarium suggests it also could have an effect on fish. Laboratory tests there indicated that increased acidity can alter the shape of an inner-ear bone found in many fish species that’s associated with how the fish perceive the environment around them.
“There is a potential for huge impact, though we can’t say anything definitive about that yet,” Tlusty said.
Maine will likely follow in the footsteps of Washington state, where a Blue Ribbon Commission published an action plan in 2012 that included short-term solutions to reduce the release of nutrients and chemicals that contribute to acidification, as well as long-term solutions such as support for stricter national and international emissions standards.
Dr. Susie Arnold, a marine scientist with the Island Institute and member of Maine’s commission studying acidification, said Thursday that reduction of global carbon dioxide levels will “definitely” be one of the group’s recommendations. Other members emphasized the need for immediate action on coastal runoff issues.
While Maine may be the first Atlantic U.S. state to tackle the issue, commission co-chairman Rep. Mick Devin, a Newcastle Democrat, said he’s optimistic that other states will join forces with Maine. Maryland is starting to explore options to put together a similar panel, and Devin is in talks with lawmakers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Young, the Oceana scientist, said that by banding together with other states, Maine could have an effect on national policies aimed at slowing acidification.
“It’s important for states to apply that pressure. Individual states can have a lot of weight, especially with the economic backdrop of a shellfish industry,” she said. “When enough coastal states, that each agree to a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, right there, you’ve got your federal policy.”
There’s precedent for Maine participating in that kind of interstate cooperation on environmental regulation. The state is a member of the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, wherein 10 northeastern states agreed to a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
“Our work is so much more valuable when other states get involved,” Devin said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.