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Maine’s waters are warming faster than most parts of the world, and the most immediate effects are being felt by coastal communities that depend on the ocean for their livelihood. Environmental changes are altering the dynamics of traditional fisheries, which represent Maine’s heritage and were valued at $890 million dollars in 2021.
But coastal communities are looking for innovative solutions and technologies to respond to climate change. Many of these projects, such as switching to electric water boats or growing seaweed to absorb carbon dioxide, were shared at the Island Institute’s inaugural Climate Symposium in Portland on Friday.
Scientists at the Maine Climate Council have projected that a dramatic change in ocean temperature is possible within the next 30 years. Since the 1880s, annual sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have been 48.6 degrees on average, but by 2050 they are expected to be between 52 and 55 degrees.
“That will be such a drastic increase unless we decrease our emissions,” said Susie Arnold, a marine scientist for the Island Institute and member of the Maine Climate Council. “We can still see a rise under decreased emission scenarios, which can be substantial.”
Warmer temperatures are changing the distribution of ocean life, which concerns those who rely on certain species driving Maine’s fisheries.
While ocean warming is causing significant changes, it is not yet likely that what happened in southern New England, with an 80-percent decline in lobster population, will take place in Maine in the next two decades, said Robert Steneck, a professor of oceanography and marine biology at the University of Maine. Temperatures considered stressful for lobsters are above 68 degrees, Steneck said.
However, while individual lobsters are not migrating northwards, the areas with abundant lobster are shifting from southern New England to Down East and offshore waters, Arnold said.
Some species are benefiting from warmer water, and others are not. Non-native species entering the warmer waters off Maine’s coast are preying on clams and mussels, leading to a decline in those species, Steneck said. However, warmer water has also led to an abundance of other species: blue crabs, squid and oysters, according to Steneck.
The effects of climate change on the ocean are leading people in coastal communities to rethink their practices and look for solutions. Arnold has noticed that people are understanding and accepting climate change as a reality more than before.
Working on ocean climate change “can be daunting and depressing,” Arnold said, “and I’ve been working to integrate hope, and pairing that with science and action for businesses, communities and individuals to learn how to improve our future.”
In addition to new technologies, there are natural strategies that can mitigate the effects of climate change.
One scientist is looking into the ability of farmed seaweed to take up carbon dioxide, a gas that can trap heat that Earth otherwise would have radiated into space. Nichole Price, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, is currently exploring kelp’s effects on water quality in Casco Bay.
“This can help potentially remove carbon from the atmosphere,” Price said. It can also help change the chemistry of seawater, to reduce ocean acidification, she said. Acidification is a reduction of the ocean’s pH, caused by the ocean absorbing more carbon dioxide, that can harm ocean life.
Electrifying the waterfront is another way some people are trying to reduce carbon emissions.
The Boat Yard in Yarmouth aims to wean aquaculture off fossil fuels by selling electric workboats. Co-founders Nick Planson and Chad Strater said they hope to reduce the carbon footprint of those who would usually rely on gasoline- and diesel-propelled motors.
The Boat Yard is currently working with about a dozen companies that are exploring electrification. Electric workboats have lower operating costs, Planson said.
“We feel that the marine industry should lead by example,” Strater said.
Casco Bay Lines, a quasi-municipal corporation, has been working to replace its aging fleet with battery-powered ferries, preventing 800 tons of carbon dioxide from being released each year, according to General Manager Hank Berg, who presented the work at the climate symposium. The ferry service between Portland and the islands of Casco Bay transports more than 1 million passengers each year.
Aging infrastructure is a major issue for coastal communities prone to flooding.
One group, the Community Resilience Partnership, which is administered by the governor’s office as part of Maine’s four-year climate action plan, is helping municipalities plan projects and identify funding to make their infrastructure more climate resilient. For instance, it is working with Vinalhaven to help build higher roads and sidewalks, and upgrade water infrastructure, said Gabe McPhail, regional coordinator with the Community Resilience Partnership.
Peninsula Tomorrow is another group helping communities coordinate and seek funding for climate priorities. The group, which consists of officials from each of the nine towns on the Blue Hill peninsula, has secured $1 million in federal funds to improve Blue Hill’s wastewater treatment facility to protect it from the effects of sea level rise and storm surge, said Allen Kratz, the coordinator of Peninsula Tomorrow.
In the fishing industry, many are finding new ways to operate using renewable energy.
Ferda Farms, an oyster and kelp farm on the New Meadows River, uses solar energy to power the machines that process oysters on a work float. It takes five hours of sunlight for the panels to run for a full day, said Max Burtis, an aquaculturist and commercial fisherman who co-owns Ferda Farms.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and a co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think-tank based in Brooklyn, highlighted the importance of individual climate action.
“This is an inflection point for humanity and the other 8 million species we share this planet with,” Johnson said.
She suggested people contribute to taking climate action by thinking about what gives them joy, what they’re good at and what needs to be done.
“We have a lot of conversations about a climate apocalypse,” Johnson said, and “we don’t have enough visions about how to charge ahead with solutions.”
Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.