An Ocean Warming: Ocean Acidification, Lobster, and the Need for More Research

Year after year, temperatures in the Gulf of Maine’s waters have risen at unprecedented rates, a result of the same increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide derived from human activity) responsible for climate change.

This has caused a slew of problems for the marine life in the area – and it also means serious trouble for the ocean’s biogeochemical composition. The ocean has always served as Earth’s largest “carbon sink,” meaning that naturally occurring and industrially produced carbon dioxide is dissolved into seawater and, through a chemical synthesis process, forms carbonic acid.

Carbonic acid breaks down into ions that increase the ocean’s acidity. Over time, marine species have evolved alongside this process in a steady transformation leading to a balanced pH for the ocean.

But, as humans have deepened their addiction to climate-warming fossil fuels, more and more carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere – meaning the ocean is taking on more carbon dioxide than ever before. These drastic increases change the ocean’s pH level, throwing it off balance and making it more acidic.

Learning as we go

The full effects of ocean acidification are not yet entirely known, but we have begun to see its effects on certain species. The group of species most threatened by ocean acidification are some of the most important to New England’s coastal economy: the ‘calcifiers’ – lobsters, scallops, oysters and other fish that use the carbonate and calcium ions dissolved in seawater to build their shells.

As the water becomes more and more acidic, it becomes harder to for these species to make and maintain their shells. And as they devote more energy to constructing their shells, less energy can be given to other essential processes, like eating or reproduction.

An uptick in shell disease threatens the fishery

For the American Lobster, ocean acidification has been shown to have devastating effects on the growth and shell building rates of juveniles, making them significantly more susceptible to threats like predation and disease.

A shell disease that creates unsightly lesions in the lobster’s hard exoskeleton, for example, had previously been thwarted by colder water temperatures. But that disease has now slowly begun to creep its way up the coast and into the Gulf of Maine. Given the increasing vulnerability of lobsters, and juveniles in particular, this shell disease and other threats have the potential to inflict serious harm on the species, the fishery, and New England’s economy as a whole.

A Lesson in Taking Initiative

The threats facing our oceans due to ocean acidification have prompted several states to take the initiative to begin to address the regional impacts of coastal and ocean acidification. This spring, Massachusetts senators and representatives are working on a bill that will create a special commission to examine the existing and potential effects of ocean acidification on both ecologically and economically important species in the waters off of Massachusetts.

This bill, Resolve H. 716, follows a rough framework laid out by states like Washington and Maine who have already approved commissions to confront the threats of ocean acidification.

In a recent roundtable forum, Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating emphasized that thorough research on ocean acidification is critical because without the best scientific knowledge, it is impossible to know how Massachusetts should take action.

Following in Washington’s footsteps is an excellent starting point for this work, however the situation facing Massachusetts and Maine (and New England at large) is unique. In the Gulf of Maine, scientists are witnessing changes in temperature and pH more rapidly and dramatically than almost anywhere else in the world – and its waters face a unique stressor due to the arctic ice melt and the resulting influx of freshwater. On top of the environmental factors, New England is especially vulnerable due to its economic dependence on susceptible species such as lobster.

Next Steps

There’s no question that establishing a devoted task force to study ocean acidification and what it means for the people and species in Massachusetts and New England will be helpful. With the support of strong science and the engaged voices of all stakeholders, addressing New England’s unique ocean acidification challenges is an important step in addressing climate change in our region.

Governor Baker: The People Have Spoken, and They Want a Marine National Monument

The people of New England, and especially Massachusetts, have spoken – and they want a Marine National Monument in the Atlantic.

More than 160,000 people have signed their name in support of a monument designation, including over 10,000 from Massachusetts alone. We’ve received public letters of support from coastal businesses, faith-based organizations, and aquaria. And more than 200 U.S. marine scientists, including the most prominent marine ecologists in the region, have stated that the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts hold special ecological value and need permanent protection as national monuments. There is no dispute about the scientific importance or vulnerability of these areas.

Our coalition said: Here’s the science; here’s what’s at stake; here are the risks to these incredible habitats. We asked the public to stand with us in support for permanent protection, and overwhelmingly, they have said – and keep saying – “yes.”

They showed up at an event at the New England Aquarium in the week before Labor Day (when they could have been doing many other things) to learn about these places and what makes them so important. They signed comment cards, and took home buttons and posters to share with colleagues and friends to spread the word. And then they showed up again, when NOAA held a town hall meeting for the express purpose of gathering public feedback. And NOAA is still accepting public comment. The Cashes Ledge Area has been studied for over ten years in a public forum. If that’s not public process, what is?

The Obama Administration should be lauded for seeking to take the steps necessary to protect critical ocean habitats from human threats – which include more than threats from fishing – and therefore require more comprehensive protection than a fishery management council has to offer. A monument is necessary to protect the health of our ocean, restore its natural productivity, and make it resilient to climate change impacts, already putting stress on iconic fish like Atlantic cod.

New Englanders are champions and leaders for the ocean, as evidenced by our commitment to drafting the first-in-the-nation regional ocean plan, due out next year. This plan will make great strides for managing the region’s ocean resources over the long term but it is not at all clear if and when this plan would consider permanent and full habitat protection of vitally important ecological areas like Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts.

A marine monument designation is not an overreach of power, but rather exactly what the Antiquities Act was created to do. These areas are in federal waters and the President has critical stewardship obligations for those resources that transcend fisheries politics. Economically, scientifically, and morally, saving our ocean treasures makes sense. We hope you’ll come to agree with the thousands of people and businesses in Massachusetts who have already stood up for our future.

Massachusetts Releases the MA Ocean Management Plan 2.0 – Leading the Nation in Comprehensive Ocean Planning and Management

In 2008, Governor Deval Patrick signed the landmark first-in-the-nation Oceans Act mandating the state to develop and implement a science-based comprehensive ocean management plan to protect ocean wildlife and habitat and promote sustainable use of the ocean and its resources.  The following year, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) issued the MA Ocean Management Plan—the first comprehensive ocean management plan in the United States.  The Oceans Act requires the ocean plan to be updated every five years to ensure that the plan adapts as new information and science develop, policy goals evolve, and underlying conditions change (e.g., due to the effects of climate change).

Hence, in early January 2015, Massachusetts issued the 2015 Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan.  Major highlights of the revised plan include updates to the plan’s science and data foundation, identification of preliminary offshore renewable energy transmission corridors, establishment of standards for offshore sand and gravel extraction for beach renourishment, and a schedule for ocean development mitigation fees.

In the works since 2013, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) completed the revised plan with assistance from a 17-member Ocean Advisory Commission and a nine-member Ocean Science Advisory Council. CZM also convened six technical work groups focused on habitat, fisheries, sediment resources, recreational and cultural services, transportation and navigation, and energy and infrastructure. Incorporating information generated by the work groups, the 2015 plan updated the scientific and data foundation of the plan and further refined the designated habitat and wildlife protection areas. Over the next five years, resource managers can use this data to make responsible and scientifically sound decisions about how we use and manage the Commonwealth’s ocean waters.

Addressing the opportunity for clean renewable offshore wind energy, the 2015 plan identifies preliminary transmission routes to bring electricity from the two federal wind energy areas off the southern coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island to landside grid tie-in locations. The Commonwealth expects to conduct further scientific study of these preliminary routes before any final delineation.

The 2015 plan also proposes new environmental standards for offshore sand/gravel extraction—a potential new and controversial use of the state’s offshore public trust resources—to mitigate increasing coastal erosion due to sea level rise and increased storm intensity caused by global warming. To guide the Commonwealth’s continued deliberation about offshore sand extraction, the Ocean Plan provides for the appointment of an Offshore Sand Task Force to provide guidance and advice to the Commonwealth about this issue.

Lastly, the plan, as required by the Ocean Act, establishes a schedule for ocean development mitigation fees to be banked in the state’s Ocean Resources and Waterways Trust and used for planning, management, restoration, or enhancement of marine habitat and uses.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the revision process was the opportunity for extensive and ongoing public and stakeholder participation through hearings and workshops held across the state. This demonstrated the kind of transparency and engagement that is possible—and necessary—in effective decision-making regarding our ocean resources.

To be effective, ocean plans need to be living documents that evolve with new information on and scientific understanding of our ocean environment.  Planning like this will start bringing the benefits of comprehensive ecosystem-based ocean planning closer than ever and none too soon given the already-measured impacts of climate change. Bravo to Massachusetts for putting this principle in motion in the 2015 Ocean Plan and for its continued leadership in ocean planning and management!