Letter from Maine: Gulf of Maine, a living laboratory of climate changeMore Info
Visitors to Maine are greeted by a large blue-and-white sign that reads “Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” The sign has welcomed tourists for more than 25 years now, during which time significant changes have occurred in the Gulf of Maine, with its dozens of slim peninsulas and more than 3,000 islands. European navigators arrived in the Gulf in the early 16th century. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, commissioned by Francis I of France to find a northwest passage to Asia, sailed up the east coast of America from Virginia to the Gulf of Maine. He found no such passage but, along the way, heard of a fabulous city made of silver and gold and crystal called – as best he could make out – Norumbega. Sixty years later, Royal Cartographer Samuel de Champlain of France sailed southward along the same coast, again on the lookout for a shortcut to Asia, and for Norumbega, from Cape Sable at the southern tip of Canadian Nova Scotia to a long, sandy peninsula shaped like a beckoning finger. Bartholomew Gosnold, seeking a suitable place in the New World for British settlers, had only recently named the beckoning peninsula: on May 15, 1602, after his crew took in a “great store of codfish,” he called it Cape Cod.
Often called “a sea within the sea,” the Gulf extends from Cape Cod, the 100-kilometer peninsula that extends from southeast Massachusetts and curls back on itself, creating a bay. Soon after Gosnold’s return to London, fishing ships began to make regular voyages to the Maine coast and, in 1620, for better or worse, the Pilgrims arrived. The great store of codfish within the Gulf flourished as the result of the unique geological formation of the basin whose southernmost bank, the Georges Bank, admits the frigid and nutrient-rich Labrador Current and deflects the warm current of the Gulf Stream as it rushes northward. With its sea floor plunging to 500 meters and plateaus, or banks, rising at points close to the sunlit surface, and with the tremendous tides of the Bay of Fundy serving as a powerful blender of nutrients, the Gulf has provided a perfect habitat for cod.
Some 12,000 years before the European navigators arrived searching for a sea route to China, a people collectively known as the Wabanaki, or People of the First Light, had crossed the continent and settled along the coast to fish the rivers and hunt the forests along the Gulf coast. Their descendants are the Abanaki, the Maleseet, the Mi’kmaq, the Passamaquoddy, and the Penobscot, whose population has been reduced by wars and disease to fewer than 10,000.
Until very recently the Gulf of Maine was a seemingly inexhaustible resource of marine species that included haddock and halibut, bluefish and dogfish, herring and giant bluefin tuna and shrimp as well as several species of shark, not to mention several species of tasty crustaceans, among them the lobster. That was, one could say, The Way the Gulf of Maine Should Be.
Novelist and essayist E.B. White who, in 1939, bought an old house on the edge of a salt marsh in North Brooklin, Maine, which he turned into a farm and where he wrote “Charlotte’s Web,” confessed to a friend, “I would rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else” – a droller way of stating the state’s highway greeting: The Way Life Should Be.
That was then, as the saying goes. The Now we live in is another matter.
In 2014 Andrew Pershing, chief scientific advisor at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, reported that the pace of warming in the Gulf had suddenly accelerated. Whereas from 1982 to 2004 the temperature had increased yearly by about 0.05 degrees in line with other large saltwater bodies of water, it was now heating up by nearly half a degree per year, a rate greater than that of 99 percent of the world’s largest bodies of saltwater.
Predictably the warming water brought marine species normally found south of Maine, south of Cape Cod. Among the first was an oyster-killing pathogen called MSX, which flourished throughout 2010 with devastating consequences to an important Maine industry. Then there was the case of the starving puffin chicks. Puffins had been hunted almost to extinction on coast and islands of the Gulf of Maine. In 1973 the Audubon Society reintroduced them in carefully watched burrows, and the species seemed to thrive until three years ago when the Society noticed that the puffin chicks were starving. Their staple diet — herring and hake — had migrated, along with a dozen other species of fish, to colder waters. The puffin parents offered their chicks a newcomer species — butter fish, which had moved up from the south – but these proved to be too bulky for the chicks to swallow. In 2014 only 10 percent of the chicks survived.
A sudden explosion of the population of green crabs — again, typically found in southern waters — brought a new threat. The small crab, which has no predators, is voracious and its diet is juvenile fish, crabs, and even lobsters. Moreover, in its search for prey, the crabs, moving in their thousands, mow down the beds of eelgrass that serve as a nursery for juvenile species and whose roots hold the soil in place. As the Maine Clammers Association reported earlier this year, “Maine’s mussel beds disappeared as the crabs devoured them.” The fear is that lobsters – a nearly $500 million Maine industry – may be next in line.
The black sea bass presents yet another threat to the meaty, red-shelled crustacean that has become a symbol of Maine. In years past the black sea bass seldom ventured into the frigid waters north of Cape Cod; recently, it has appeared in such great numbers that North Carolina fishermen with licenses to fish the delectable bass come all the way to Maine to catch their quota. The black sea bass devours fish, clams, shrimp and lobster.
Meanwhile there is the ever-increasing, man-made threat posed by acidification. Cold, fresh water – like that provided by the Labrador Current and the many rivers flowing into the Gulf of Maine – more readily absorbs carbon dioxide than does warmer sea water and, as long as engines pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the cold water which sucks it up will continue to warm even as the sea level rises. In February 2015, a report drawn up by the Maine Ocean Acidification Commission noted that “the combination of carbon dioxide and seawater results in the formation of carbonic acid, which can dissolve the shells of shellfish.” Or, as Quartz reporter Gwynn Guilford, in an article about the massive die-off of baby oysters and hatchling scallops on the other side of the continent in British Columbia, put it, “In other words, the sea is bathing shellfish in water that increasingly resembles acid.”
Marine scientists, including Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, say the Gulf may now be considered as a “living laboratory” for studying how climate change could affect marine ecosystems around the world. For his part, Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage – who recently boasted “I’m a Donald Trump-type. I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump” — has chosen to ignore the changes wrought by global warming, emphasizing instead the potential benefits to Maine, with the retreat of polar ice providing the northwest passage sought in vain by early explorers.
Note from Jon Swan: Readers should check out two short (4 minutes) cartoons on YouTube: Attack of the Green Crabs and The Lobster Pot Heats Up, by O’Chang Studios – wonderfully put together and soundly scientific.