Whales and Lobstermen Have a Common Enemy

February 22, 2023 | 4:02 pm
Mike Young, MFF
Roger Stephenson
Northeast Regional Advocacy Director

Over the years, the Maine Fishermen’s Forum has been an important event for me; I go to listen and engage with different stakeholders of the Gulf of Maine. The 2020 Maine Fishermen’s Forum was the last conference I and many others attended before the pandemic shutdown. It was the first weekend in March, and I recall people even then were unsure of offering a handshake or a fist bump. 

At the evening seafood reception that year, in a corner near the fresh oysters, a board member of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association remarked to me, “Everyone blames everything on climate change, but they blame the Right Whale on lobstering.”   

His remark has remained with me ever since. A simple statement that masks just how complicated the issues are: mixing politics, economics, livelihoods, fisheries, and endangered species in the ocean body that is the Gulf of Maine. 

Three years later, energy production emerges as a force to be reckoned with by fishermen, clean energy advocates, those focused on the endangered Right Whale, and everyone who depends upon the Gulf of Maine (hereafter referred to as “GOM”) and its future. GOM communities, not fossil fuel interests, should determine policies that affect GOM people.

He was on to something

And the lobsterman was correct: we can blame carbon emissions for ocean acidification and warming in the Gulf of Maine. It’s gotten to be common knowledge that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s ocean. Sea levels are rising. Gulf water chemistry and temperature are changing.  The Gulf of Maine Research Institute climate dashboard clearly indicates sea surface temperature anomalies. Maine scientists assessed that the Gulf of Maine is likely to remain warmer than the historical average and, if summer water temperatures begin to exceed ~68°F, the recent expansion of lobster could reverse.

The common enemy explained—and it’s NOT Offshore Wind

1-  The common enemy is the oil and gas industry because of their role in climate impacts. We know that over 135 years, 88 fossil fuel producers contributed approximately:

  • 61% of the observed rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide
  • 52% of the rise in global average temperature
  • 34% of global sea level rise
  • 55% of the increase in ocean acidification

Fisheries, including lobsters, are responding to the warming by moving elsewhere. While vessel collisions and entanglements are real issues with whale mortality, ocean warming is primarily responsible for a collapse in the population of Calanus, in the Gulf of Maine which is at the southern end of the Calanus range—and the whales’ main source of food.  

2- Additionally, the common enemy is the oil and gas industry because they deceived the public. Exxon and other companies knew, but deliberately misled us for decades. ExxonMobil internal science, spanning from 1977 to 2003, featured graphs showing how temperatures would rise as a result of the heat-trapping emissions produced from burning the fossil fuels the company extracted, refined, marketed, and sold. Exxon kept their science internal yet publicly dismissed global warming, worked to discredit scientists, and blocked climate solutions. 

1 + 2 = 3

Climate damage and consumer fraud are precisely why four New England states are suing fossil fuel companies and why Pacific fishermen came together to take fossil fuel giants to court. It’s why Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said:

The climate crisis is impacting Maine in a number of ways, from ocean temperatures affecting our fisheries to extreme weather damaging our infrastructure and costing taxpayers. Big oil companies played a big role in creating this crisis and inhibiting an effective, evidence-based policy response. They should be held accountable for their actions.”

Lies, blowing in the wind

Today, fossil fuel companies remain the common enemy because they are bankrolling the offshore wind opposition and spreading misinformation about whales, Right Whales, and wind infrastructure.  Anti-wind groups under the guise of environmental protection are connected to a fossil fuel-friendly think tank, e.g., Protect our Oceans NJ, Save Long Beach Island, and Nantucket Residents Against Turbines (ACKRATS).  The recent fishing and wildlife lawsuit challenging the Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts is financed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group that gets its money from oil and gas companies.  

Local voices forge Maine solutions

Science tells us that because of decades of delay we must now simultaneously reduce emissions and adapt to the changing climate. Fortunately, Maine is up to the challenge.

The Maine Climate Council went to work in 2019 because of the significant climate impacts to the people in Maine as well as to the natural resources on which people depend. All told, the Council and its seven working groups and two subcommittees represent one of the largest and most diverse group of interests assembled to consider and act upon an issue consequential to Maine. 

Representatives of commercial fishing interests sat on the full Council, on the Science and Technical Subcommittee, on the Equity Subcommittee, and on the Coastal and Marine Working Group.  A diversity of voices influenced the early discussions on offshore wind as reflected in Maine’s climate action plan:

The state should work with landowners, developers, fishermen, and other important stakeholders to develop siting guidelines that seek to minimize impacts to communities, fishing, and the environment… (p. 58).

…it is essential that the state require meaningful consultation with stakeholders including Maine’s fishing industry, on the identification of a site (p.59).

An oversight in my opinion is that commercial fishing interests were not represented on the Council’s Energy working group, leaving the door open to the misinformation that abounds from anti-offshore wind groups who are bankrolled by fossil fuel industries (and my opinion was reinforced recently when more than one commercial lobsterman asked the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), “who’s defining renewable energy?”).

Maine Offshore Wind Road Map released

The good news is the Maine Offshore Wind Road Map, a direct descendant of Maine Won’t Wait, includes support of Maine’s vital seafood industries as one of its five core objectives. Strategies include strengthening and facilitating robust engagement and integrating technical feedback from fishermen; advancing opportunities for fair and equitable benefits; and seeking to avoid and minimizing conflicts.

The roadmap details specific actions to advance the strategies, including exploring ways in which offshore wind development might include investments that help support fisheries priorities. It is a frank and candid consensus document, recognizing that “Participation takes time, energy and resources that are not equally accessible to all stakeholders.”

Who’s at the table, and who’s not

Towns, taxpayers, fishermen, and local businesses are all at the table. Who’s not at the table are fossil fuel companies. They don’t need to be, because deception and disinformation, documented here and here, is their business model for increasing profits at the expense of those who depend upon the Gulf of Maine.

According to BOEM’s recent Maine presentations, installation is almost a decade away, leaving all stakeholders including those who depend on the Gulf of Maine for traditional fishing livelihoods, ample time to influence decisions made at each milestone. It’s up to the state to involve fishing interests, as identified in the climate plan and roadmap; it’s up to fishing interests to continue good faith efforts to stay involved. It’s up to all of us to hold fossil fuel interests accountable.