U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have urged the federal government to improve efforts to understand the causes and effects of the rapid warming of the Gulf of Maine, which threatens to disrupt Maine’s traditional fisheries and the ecosystem that supports them.

“We need greater resources, enhanced monitoring of subsurface conditions, and a better understanding of the diversity of factors that are simultaneously impacting the Gulf of Maine, from changes in circulation and water temperature to ocean acidification,” the senators wrote in a letter Monday to the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Tim Gallaudet.

“This effort is critical not just for Maine and New England states but for our country as a whole,” they added in the letter, which also called for greater cooperative research and monitoring efforts with Canada, which has sovereignty over the eastern half of the gulf. “Understanding the changes occurring in the Gulf of Maine with respect to warming ocean waters will allow us to better understand the impact to fisheries and benefit other waters similarly affected by climate change.”

Canadian scientists recently measured record-breaking temperatures in the deep water flowing into the principal oceanographic entrance to the Gulf of Maine – nearly 11 degrees above normal – and other researchers report warmer water has been intruding into some of the gulf’s deep-water basins. In a press release, the senators said their letter was prompted by an April 24 Press Herald story on these developments.

POLIQUIN, PINGREE SUPPORTIVE

Both of Maine’s U.S. House members applauded the senators’ moves.

“Along with ocean acidification and the potential for oil drilling off our coastline, the warming of the Gulf of Maine is a serious threat to our way of life in Maine,” Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican representing the 2nd District, said in an email. “I have met with and discussed this issue with Mainers up and down the coast and I agree NOAA should prioritize researching the Gulf of Maine.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing the 1st District, said the senators’ letter was “great” and that she wanted NOAA to “keep their focus on the issues around the Gulf of Maine,” though she expressed concern that the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress did not take the threat of climate change seriously. Her bill to direct NOAA to assess the likely impacts of one climate impact – ocean acidification – on coastal communities has gone nowhere in the more than two years since it was introduced, even though it now has five Republican co-sponsors, including Poliquin.

“We’re just trying to work hard to be sure they don’t take all the funding away, the monitoring data and the records, and just throw all the institutional memory in the garbage heap,” Pingree said.

President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, making the United States the only United Nations member state opposed to the international effort to voluntarily reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

THREAT OF RAPIDLY WARMING GULF

In recent years, scientists have identified the Gulf of Maine as the second-fastest-warming part of the world ocean, in part because it is vulnerable to shifts in the relative strength of the frigid Labrador Current – which normally feeds the gulf – and the warm-water Gulf Stream, which can intrude when the cold current weakens. The Labrador Current is feared to be weakening as a side effect of the melting down of the Greenland ice sheet.

The effects in the gulf can be dramatic for human and marine life alike. An “ocean heat wave in 2012” caused lobsters to shed six weeks ahead of their usual schedule, throwing off the timing of Maine’s soft-shell harvest and leading to conflicts with New Brunswick fishermen over access to Canadian lobster processing facilities. The population of green crabs exploded, and they devoured most of the clams in Freeport, Brunswick and other towns, tearing up seagrass beds in many bays, while puffin chicks on Eastern Egg Rock starved because their parents couldn’t find appropriate food for them.

Maine has done little to respond to the crisis, with state policymakers ignoring the recommendations of a bipartisan panel of experts convened by the Legislature three years ago that concluded that ocean acidification – a byproduct of global warming – represented a potentially catastrophic threat to Maine’s marine harvesters. The panel advised moves focused on closing the information gap about the threat, much as Collins, a Republican, and King, an independent caucusing with the Democrats, are asking NOAA to do for the broader warming issue.

SCIENTISTS WELCOME INITIATIVE

Researchers in Maine welcomed the senators’ initiative.

“Important monitoring programs in the Gulf of Maine have been cut in recent years,” said Nick Record, a computational ocean ecologist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay. “We need these to be supported so that we’re not flying blind.”

Andrew Thomas, an oceanographer at the University of Maine’s School for Ocean Sciences, said Maine has limited resources for monitoring and studying the ongoing changes off the Northeast coast. “Scientists and managers working in the Gulf of Maine region welcome leadership and prioritization from NOAA as we struggle to both measure and understand the oceanographic changes happening in the Gulf of Maine, assess their causes, try to forecast their trends, and most importantly, try to understand their potential implications for the marine resources that are so important to the states and provinces of the area,” he said via email.

 

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