Lobstermen on front lines of climate change

First published in Landings, December, 2015.

Maine Senator Angus King serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  Photo courtesy of A. King.

Maine Senator Angus King serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Photo courtesy of A. King.

For generations, Maine men and women have proudly hauled lobster from the coastal waters of our state so that it can be enjoyed across the globe. In that time, our lobstermen have come to represent the spirit of hard work and rugged independence that makes Maine so special, and while the lobster industry is an indisputable and iconic symbol of our culture, it is also a cornerstone of our economy.

Lobster fishing has been the most valuable commercial fishery in Maine for many years and 2014 marked the biggest year on record for Maine’s 6,000 or so licensed lobstermen. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over 124 million pounds of lobster were landed in the state last year with a record value of nearly $460 million. The fishery’s value is staggering – it makes up about 84 percent of the value of all commercial fishery landings in the state. The Maine lobster catch also makes up a commensurate percentage of all lobsters landed in the country. That economic impact is felt in Maine and it plays an enormous role in supporting local communities.

With so many lobstermen contributing so much to our state, it’s essential that we actively work to protect our ocean resources – and one of the greatest threats facing them today is climate change. Indeed, as the Gulf of Maine warms, we can increasingly see the dangers of global climate change right here in our front yard, and with that, the need for action becomes that much clearer.

In many ways, the Gulf of Maine is a living laboratory that is already providing vital insights into the impacts of climate change. Warming waters have affected our fisheries and the location of certain stocks, sending ripples of change throughout our ocean ecosystem. For instance, we have witnessed a significant northward shift in the lobster population over the last few decades – as waters have warmed in places like Rhode Island, lobsters have migrated north in search of colder waters. In the short-term, it’s a trend that’s been beneficial for Maine, as the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stocks have increased steadily since 1979, with the pace accelerating exponentially since 2007.

But in the long-term, there’s also the possibility that, as waters continue to warm, lobsters will continue to migrate north and trade Maine’s coast for colder Canadian waters. That’s why it’s so important – both environmentally and economically – that we take action to combat climate change and protect the long-term sustainability of this industry that means so much to Maine.

Another symptom of climate change that has a far-reaching effect on our fishermen is the process known as ocean acidification, in which rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere are causing changes in the chemistry of the ocean, leaving waters in the Gulf of Maine 30 times more acidic than they were during the industrial revolution. Together with the warming waters, this trend highlights the urgent and unprecedented nature of many of the changes that we are seeing in the Gulf of Maine, which underscores the need for cooperation and collaboration in the fight against climate change.

As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Climate Action Task Force, I have been working to address the issue of climate change in Congress, particularly its impact on Maine’s fishermen and our coastal communities. In addition to supporting policies that would curb the amount of carbon introduced into the atmosphere (the primary driver of climate change), I have also introduced legislation such as the Waterfront Community Revitalization and Resiliency Act that would help waterfront communities improve their resiliency toward climate change and extreme weather conditions, and support investments for water sustainability. The bill would: create a voluntary resilient waterfront community designation that recognizes areas that adopt a waterfront revitalization and resiliency plan integrating economic, ecosystem, and infrastructure challenges and opportunities; create a grant program to fund the approach; and also establish a national network that would allow communities to share best practices. This is a practical example of concrete steps that we can take right now to protect waterfront communities against climate change. I will continue to advocate for policies that promote cleaner, renewable energy sources, and to urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to develop meaningful legislation that both addresses climate change and spurs economic growth in our coastal communities.

While we have already begun to see the local impacts of climate change, the issue is really one of a global nature that will require global solutions. That’s why I’m encouraged that international leaders will be gathering this month at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris. This conference will include representatives from 195 countries and will focus on ways to mitigate climate change. The discussions present an opportunity for the global community to work on policy measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, encourage the development of renewable energies, and support lower-emission transportation – among many other things. Though large in scope, this conference can have a direct impact in small towns up and down Maine’s coast. It is only through this type of international discourse that we can truly begin to combat climate change and ensure that the long-term environmental and economic interests of Maine, the United States, and the world are protected for future generations.

The philosopher Voltaire once said, “Men argue, nature acts.” In the case of climate change, the time for argument is over and the time for collaboration has begun. Your industry helps drive Maine’s economy and each of you embodies the strength of character of Maine people. We must do everything we can in Congress to support you, and I pledge to you that I will always have your back.