Maine looks for help as waters acidify

Chris Adams
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Walpole, Maine — In the icy waters of midcoast Maine, Bill Mook has his eyes on his oysters — and how the waters they need to survive are gradually, but clearly, changing.

Down the coast near Portland, the issue is clams and the mud flats that have become inhospitable to their survival.

Farther south still, near Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the worry is so-called "sea butterflies," tiny marine snails that live low on the food chain and are — like the oysters and clams — threatened by a process known as "ocean acidification."

"We're acidifying the oceans," said Mark Green, a professor of environmental science at Saint Joseph's College in Maine. "We don't know exactly what's going to survive and what's not, but there will be extinctions."

Ocean acidification is sometimes referred to as "the other carbon dioxide problem," and it's exactly what the name implies: the gradual increase of acid in the world's waters. It's fueled by the burning of fossil fuels and the massive amounts of carbon that releases. A good chunk of that is absorbed by the world's oceans, making the water more acidic.

Additional acid makes it hard for some species to develop the shells they need to survive. And that's instilled fear in government and fisheries leaders around the country.

In Washington state and the Pacific Northwest, the issue hit home between 2005 and 2009, when acidified conditions killed billions of oyster larvae at two of the main hatcheries that provide Pacific oysters to growers. Hatcheries scrambled to boost the monitoring of ocean chemistry and to adapt growing methods to avoid particular acidic waters.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, points to other hotspots: in the Gulf of Mexico, coastal California, Alaska, Maine, North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay region, all of which have important seafood industries; and in Florida and Hawaii, which have coral reefs — and associated tourism — to protect.

But while carbon-fueled climate change is a hot issue politically, its sibling — ocean acidification — has escaped much public notice except in the affected regions.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office noted in a September report that the "current rate of acidification is believed to be faster than at any point in at least the last 20 million years." But, it added, the federal government hasn't done as much as it could have to implement a 2009 law to respond to the potential crisis, such as developing adaptation strategies.

Here in Maine — where lobster is king and oysters, clams, eels, scallops and other species round out a thriving seafood industry — members of the state commission decided they couldn't wait for the federal government to act.

"Perhaps the most alarming of the commission's findings is how much we do not know about ocean acidification and how it will affect Maine's commercially important species, including the iconic lobster," a state commission on the issue recently wrote. It said actions "can and must be taken to understand, prevent, reduce and mitigate the negative impacts" of the phenomenon, and noted that there are so-called "mud flats" in Casco Bay off Portland where juvenile soft-shell clams struggle to survive in acidified conditions.

"We're really closely linked to the sea," said Mook, who runs an elaborate oyster operation on the Damariscotta River and who served on the Maine commission. But, he added: "When you look at the science of what we know about lobsters and how they are going to be affected by ocean acidification, we essentially are clueless."