BIDDEFORD — As the northeasternmost state in the U.S., Maine is geographically positioned as America’s gateway to the Arctic and North Atlantic – regions becoming increasingly important to global commerce and culture. We must cast aside our notion of Maine as a back door to the world and reimagine it as a front door, devoting the full force of our human and economic capital to making Maine a leader in the “New North.”

Geographer Mia Bennett has characterized Maine as the next “near-Arctic state,” and in 2015, Maine’s Angus King partnered with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to form the Senate Arctic Caucus. The Arctic and the North Atlantic region have become increasingly geopolitically relevant. Characterized by political stability and celebrated for achievements in public health, education, civil rights and other important features of civil society, several North Atlantic countries have become global models. This has resulted in steadily increasing economic activity, trade and tourism.

At the same time, climate change continues to reshape our world’s geography and waters. And while we must do all we can as a global community to minimize the progression and effects of climate change, we must also be realists. As the North thaws, new shipping routes open, valuable temperate-zone fisheries move north, more land becomes available for cultivation and new opportunities for collaboration arise.

We may not instinctively think of Iceland or the other Nordic countries as Maine’s neighbors, but modern shipping, improved infrastructure and, yes, melting glaciers, make them exactly that. As Patrick Arnold, representing the Maine Port Authority, argued at the 2014 Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, we must embrace the idea of “cost-based geography.” If it costs the same – or even less – to ship a lobster or other Maine-sourced product from Portland to Iceland as it does from Portland to Washington, D.C., then Reykjavik is as near to Maine economically as our nation’s capital.

Indeed, as a maritime state with well-developed natural resource industries, we possess the potential to be a global leader in emerging industries like aquaculture. The most obvious sign of Maine’s growing global importance in this arena has been the arrival of the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, which moved its North American headquarters to Portland in 2013. Traffic through the Port of Portland has more than doubled in the last five years. In addition, recently announced plans for land-based salmon farms in Belfast and Bucksport show the promise others see in the region, highlight the emerging value of the Maine brand and hint at the extent of the economic potential for Maine.

These opportunities extend beyond the prospects for expanded economic development. Just as we share geographical, environmental, cultural, demographic and industrial similarities with the Arctic nations, we also face many of the same challenges. And by collaborating with these neighbors, we can develop scalable solutions.

Like the other Arctic countries, we face relatively long, harsh winters, but enjoy breathtakingly beautiful natural resources. We are rapidly urbanizing, but still possess a significant rural population. We have a vibrant tourism industry with deep connections to the outdoors and ocean. We face similar public health challenges, including persistent substance abuse, and the need to deliver high-quality health care to a widely dispersed, rural, aging population.

It is not enough for Maine to wait for opportunities. We must encourage investment – both foreign and domestic – in industries linked to the North. We must educate industries in the U.S. about the opportunities for trade in the region and position Maine’s ports as international gateways. We must invest in facilities that will support greater trade with regional partners. We must increase cultural exchanges and joint educational and research programs.

At the University of New England, we intend to play a key role in connecting partners across industries and international lines, while contributing to and leading specific projects tied to our strengths in the marine, environmental and social sciences, health care and humanities. To this end, we have created an initiative called UNE North: The Institute for North Atlantic Studies. Headquartered in Portland, UNE North is already working with many local partners, including the Maine North Atlantic Development Office, the New England Ocean Cluster, Verrill Dana, Pierce Atwood, Bristol Seafood, Maine Marine Composites, Wild Ocean Aquaculture, Oceans Balance and the University of Maine, as well as universities in Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

By acting intentionally, proactively and collaboratively, we can maximize our state’s potential in this exciting new arena. A back door no longer, Maine’s ports are open and we’re ready to share our ideas, products and unique spirit with the world beyond our shores.

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