The Stuttering Energy Transition: Fishing in Maine

As we approached the new year, I started to describe the global energy transition that’s been taking place, which we hope will take us away from fossil fuels and closer to non-carbon-based energy sources. My plan was to study the efforts of a few key countries, each of which serves as a potential example from which the rest of us can learn; I started that series of blogs with a look at Germany’s main steps  (December 9 – 30, 2014). All of these efforts are largely targeted toward the meeting that will take place in Paris, in December of 2015, where a global agreement regarding such approaches will be discussed. As often happens with any plan, however, reality interfered, so I am pausing from that train of thought – in this case the distraction came, in the form of a short New York Times article about a conflict between two groups of people in the state of Maine.

PORTLAND, Me. — In the vast gulf that arcs from Massachusetts’s shores to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, cod was once king. It paid for fishermen’s boats, fed their families and put their children through college. In one halcyon year in the mid-1980s, the codfish catch reached 25,000 tons.

Today, the cod population has collapsed. Last month, regulators effectively banned fishing for six months while they pondered what to do, and next year, fishermen will be allowed to catch just a quarter of what they could before the ban.

But a fix may not be easy. The Gulf of Maine’s waters are warming — faster than almost any ocean waters on earth, scientists say — and fish are voting with their fins for cooler places to live. That is upending an ecosystem and the fishing industry that depends on it.

Regulators this month canceled the Maine shrimp catch for the second straight year, in no small part because shrimp are fleeing for colder climes. Maine lobsters are booming, but even so, the most productive lobster fishery has shifted as much as 50 miles up the coast in the last 40 years. Black sea bass, southerly fish seldom seen here before, have become so common that this year, Maine officials moved to regulate their catch. Blue crab, a signature species in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, are turning up off Portland.

In decades past, the gulf had warmed on average by about one degree every 21 years. In the last decade, the average has been one degree every two years. “What we’re experiencing is a warming that very few ocean ecosystems have ever experienced,” said Andrew J. Pershing, the chief scientific officer for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute here.

Joe Orlando, 60, who fishes from a Gloucester, Mass., base, said the effect of the ban was terrifying. “It’s completely, completely over,” he said. “I got a house, kids, payments.”

But many other fishermen do not blame climate change. They blame the regulators, calling the moratorium cruel and needless, because they say their latest cod catches are actually better than in recent years. More than a few talk of a conspiracy between scientists and environmentalists to manufacture a fishing crisis that will justify their jobs.

Scientists say the truth is more prosaic: Although the gulf is generally warming — 2012 was the hottest year on record — the last year was cooler, and kinder to cod. Moreover, the gulf’s remaining cod have congregated in deeper, colder waters in southern Maine and Massachusetts, where their abundance masks their scarcity elsewhere.

“A fisherman’s job isn’t to get an unbiased estimate of abundance. It’s to catch fish,” said Michael Fogarty, the chief of the ecosystem assessment program at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that monitors sea life. “The world they see is a different world than we see in the surveys.”

Two weeks later, another article appeared in the New York Times in the form of an Op-Ed that expanded the issue:

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — IN November, regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down recreational and commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, that enchanting arm of the coastal sea stretching east-northeast from Cape Cod. They did not have much choice: Federal law requires action to rebuild fish stocks when they are depleted, and recent surveys revealed cod populations to be at record lows, despite decades of regulations intended to restore them.

The fishery resources of the western Atlantic once seemed virtually limitless, with fish supposedly as numerous as grains of sand in the Sahara. And yet the current emergency effort to restore cod populations is simply the latest chapter in a 150-year saga in which fishermen, scientists, industrialists and politicians have consistently confronted emptier nets and fewer fish.

As early as the 1850s, fishermen from Maine and Massachusetts began to pester their governments to do something about declining cod catches. Those men fished with hooks and lines from small wooden sailboats and rowboats. Fearing “the material injury of the codfishing interests of this state” by increased fishing for menhaden, a critical forage fish for cod, fishermen from Gouldsboro, Me., implored the Legislature in 1857 to limit menhaden hauls.

Yet annual cod landings in the Gulf of Maine continued to slide, from about 70,000 metric tons in 1861 to about 54,000 metric tons in 1880, to about 20,000 tons in the 1920s, to just a few thousand metric tons in recent years. There have been a few upticks along the way, such as one bumper year in the mid-1980s when the cod catch reached 25,000 tons (due, in part, to an unnecessarily large expansion of the fishing fleet), but for the most part the trend has been noticeably downward since the era of the Civil War. There have been plenty of warnings along the way. Maine’s fishery commissioner, Edwin W. Gould, spoke out plainly in 1892. “It is the same old story,” he said. “The buffalo is gone; the whale is disappearing; the seal fishery is threatened with destruction.” For Mr. Gould, the path forward was clear: “Fish need protection.”

Maine is a small state (in terms of population and economic activity) with about 0.4% of the US population and 0.3% of its GDP. A reported clash between fishermen and regulators should not be big news. It might be big news if served as a laboratory for resolution of similar clashes in much larger setting.

I have two academic friends, both of whom are retired professors of history; they now split their lives between teaching in New York and vacationing in a cabin situated on the shores of a beautiful lake in Maine. The cabin is not connected to the electrical grid, but gets its electrical power from a small generator supplemented by a solar panel. When I was making a the movie, “Quest for Energy,” about a community of people living in the Sundarbans in India and their quest to transition their access to electrical power, I invited myself over to my friends’ cabin for a few days so I could learn the intricacies of living off the grid. Since then I have tried to visit for fun – instead of just for reasons relating to my work. My wife and I simply love their place (and their company) and we have great time there. Recently, I met up with them and showed them the article. I asked them what they think can be done to bridge the gap between the fishermen and the scientists (regulators); they told me to forget about it – such a thing will never happen. According to them, the fishermen want to keep guys like me (an academic from NY) as far away as possible from Maine and more specifically from Maine’s precious shoreline.

Maine is not indifferent to climate change. Here is what the Energy Information Administration (EIA) writes about environmental activities in Maine:

Quick Facts

  • The Port of Portland receives crude oil shipments that are transported by pipeline to refineries in Quebec and Ontario.
  • Maine is the only New England state in which industry is the largest energy consuming sector; the industrial sector accounted for 34% of energy consumed in 2011.
  • Maine had the lowest average electricity retail prices in New England at the end of 2013.
  • Virtually all of Maine’s net electricity generation comes from nonutility power producers.
  • In 2013, over half of Maine’s net electricity generation came from renewable energy resources, with about 29% from hydroelectricity, 25% from wood, and 7% from wind.

Maine: Profile Analysis

Hydroelectric dams and biomass from wood products provide almost half of Maine’s net electricity generation, the largest share from renewable sources in the eastern United States. Biomass alone accounts for more than one-fifth of generation, the largest share by far of any state, placing Maine among the top U.S. producers of electricity from wood and wood waste-derived fuels, such as wood pellets. The state has the highest generation per capita in the nation of electricity from biomass. Use of wood for home heating has grown in rural Maine as the price of home heating oil has risen.

Hydroelectric turbines produce nearly one-fourth of Maine’s net electricity generation, the largest share of any state east of the Mississippi. Water-powered mills were built on Maine’s numerous rivers to run its earliest industries, and when electricity became available in the late 1800s, small hydroelectric dams were built all over the state. By the mid-1980s, the state was home to 782 dams. A few have since been removed to restore natural river flows and fish migrations. Recently, Maine hydroelectric dam owners and conservationists have reached agreements to increase turbine generating capacity at some dams while tearing down others.

In 1999, as part of electricity market restructuring, Maine regulators set a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requiring that at least 30% of retail electricity sales come from renewable sources, although state electricity distributors had already surpassed that goal. Since then, the legislature has added a second, separate RPS that requires new renewable resources to supply increasing shares of electricity sales, topping out at 10% in 2017. New hydroelectric generators must be smaller than 100 megawatts to qualify under the second RPS. The state legislature has debated lifting that limit to allow more hydroelectricity imports from Canada.

Most new renewable generating facilities planned in New England are wind-powered. Maine has significant wind resources along crests of Appalachian ranges in the state’s northwest and along its Atlantic coastline. The Maine legislature has set goals of installing 2,000 megawatts of wind capacity in the state by 2015; 3,000 megawatts by 2020, with at least 300 megawatts offshore; and 8,000 megawatts by 2030, with at least 5,000 megawatts offshore. Wind energy has been gaining net electricity generating share in Maine rapidly in recent years, with more than a dozen projects coming on line. The state leads New England in wind generation. The first application for wind turbines in federal waters off Maine was filed in 2011. Also on the Maine coast is the first U.S. tidal power generating facility to produce electricity, a pilot project in Cobscook Bay. Because of concerns about the cost of new technologies, New England governors are exploring regional procurement of renewable resources, primarily wind, to meet state RPS goals more economically.

So what can be done to make the fishermen and scientists talk with each other? My first thought was of Katherine Hayhoe. I wrote about her efforts in my April 22, 2014 blog when I described the TV program “Years of Living Dangerously.” Don Cheadle, who narrated the first episode of the program, showed the difference in response to the droughts in both Texas and California. In California, common belief seems to be that climate change is an important contributor to the cause, while in Texas they believe that the droughts are an act of God. Cheadle went to Texas to interview Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and devout evangelist, who joins the evangelists in their prayers but explains that there is no contradiction between believing in both God and science (The Pope is now strongly presenting the same view). Through her efforts, much of the audience was listening and starting to believe that anthropogenic climate change has something to do with the drought and that we can do something to mitigate it.

How could a similar experience help in Maine? Any ideas? Stay tuned!

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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