PORTLAND, Maine — A group of state legislators from across New England want to form a multi-state pact to counter increasing ocean acidity along the East Coast, a problem they believe will endanger multi-million dollar fishing industries if left unchecked.
The legislators’ effort faces numerous hurdles: They are in the early stages of fostering cooperation between many layers of government as they hope to push for potentially expensive research and mitigation projects, and want to use state laws to tackle a problem scientists say is the product of global environmental trends.
But the legislators believe they can gain a bigger voice at the federal and international levels by banding together, said Mick Devin, a Maine representative who has advocated for ocean research in his home state. The states can also push for research to determine the impact that local factors such as nutrient loading and fertilizer runoff have on ocean acidification and advocate for new controls, he said.
“We don’t have a magic bullet to reverse the effects of ocean acidification and stop the world from pumping out so much carbon dioxide,” Devin said. “But there are things we can do locally.”
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration says the growing acidity of worldwide oceans is tied to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and attributes the growth to fossil fuel burning and land use changes. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased from 280 parts per million to over 394 parts per million over the past 250 years, according to NOAA.
Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, and when it mixes with seawater it reduces the availability of carbonate ions, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said. Those ions are critical for marine life such as shellfish, coral and plankton to grow their shells.
The changing ocean chemistry can have “potentially devastating ramifications for all ocean life,” including key commercial fishing species, according to NOAA.
NOAA has continued to carry out preservation measures of its own, but largely through clamping tighter limits and imposing new area closures on the commercial fishing industry aimed at protecting the Gulf of Maine cod.
The Northeast groundfishing industry, meanwhile — including the Gloucester fleet — has been devastated, with the Department of Commerce recognizing it as an economic “disaster” since late 2012, and the federal government providing disaster aid that is still making its way to fishermen and other industry businesses in Gloucester and elsewhere.
In tackling ocean acidity, the New England states are following a model set by Maine, which commissioned a panel to spend months studying scientific research about ocean acidification and its potential impacts on coastal industries.
Legislators in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are working on bills to create similar panels. A similar bill was shot down in committee in the New Hampshire legislature but will likely be back in 2016, said Rep. David Borden, who sponsored the bill.
Massachusetts Rep. Tim Madden, D-Falmouth, introduced a bill in the Bay State in January, saying that one of the goals of the effort is to get policy makers talking about ocean acidification, which some call the “evil twin” of global warming.
“I don’t think it has been talked about in the commonwealth until recently,” he said.
Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist in the Marine Policy Center at Woods Hole, said there is little the state legislators can do to curb carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which is a main driver of ocean acidification. But state officials do have the ability to regulate what kinds of nutrients flow into coastal oceans, which also affects pH levels.
“The coastal oceans, where shellfish farming takes place and where there’s a lot of economically important biological life, the pH conditions are influenced strongly by the things that flow in from the land,” he said.
Maine’s ocean acidification panel, which includes scientists, fishermen and legislators, issued its report in January. It produced a host of bills, including one that calls for the state to borrow $3 million so scientists can collect data about increasing ocean acidity along the Maine coast and its impact on key commercial species, such as lobster and clams. The “most alarming” finding is “how much we do not know about ocean acidification and how it will affect Maine’s commercially important species,” the report said.
Devin said the legislators hope to convince other coastal states and Canadian provinces to commit to studying ocean acidification. Farther down the coast, Maryland also passed legislation last year calling for a study of the effects of ocean acidification on state waters. Washington also became the first West Coast state to take similar action last year.
President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal included $30 million for NOAA to study ocean acidification, a major bump from previous years.