Challenges and Opportunities for Resilience to Climate Change: Highlights from the Gulf of Maine 2050 International Symposium

Climate change—its effects and steps to adapt to change—was the dominant subject at the Gulf of Maine International Symposium held in Portland, Maine on 4-8 November 2019. Organized by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, The Maine Coastal Program (State of Maine), the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, and the Huntsman Marine Science Centre, St. Andrews, New Brunswick, the conference focussed on the changing climate in the Gulf of Maine. Hence, the keynote presentations, talks, and panels dealt with sea level rise and precipitation, ocean acidification, and warming waters, three of the major changes occurring in local coastal waters attributed to climate change. The working group sessions in each afternoon of the conference considered gap analysis to determine what we are prepared for, or not, and to identify the most important policy and management action items and research priorities moving forward. Over 100 posters covered a very wide range of marine, coastal, and fisheries topics relevant to the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. I was a co-author of three posters: one on chemical contaminants in the Gulf, another on the Bay of Fundy Ecosystem Partnership, and a third on the results of studies relevant to the Gulf of Maine conducted by the Environmental Information: Use and Influence research program at Dalhousie University. The program, four scientific scenario papers, and abstracts of talks and posters are available on the conference website and proceedings of the symposium are in preparation.

The key messages from the symposium included:                                                                                  

Importance of information. In the words of Ko Barrett, Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Deputy Assistant Administrator for Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA), “tailored information in regional contexts is crucial to informing priority actions.”

Importance of collaboration. Rob Stephenson, Research Scientist with the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, emphasized that to resolve a problem as complex as climate change, one must collaborate, breaking down silos (the barriers between disciplines) and embracing transdisciplinarity, especially by working in teams.

Indicators of climate change. This topic generated discussion on several points.

  1. There are various physical drivers of change, which interact among themselves and with other environmental changes. It is crucial to understand these interactions.
  2. In the Gulf of Maine, higher water temperatures, significant sea level rise, a highly variable climate, more extreme rain events, an increase in wind events, and a general increase in storminess are expected over the next few decades. The implications of more storms and more rain, e.g., flooding in the watersheds, are notable.
  3. Salt marshes around the Gulf of Maine perform important ecosystem services related to controlling the effects of and increasing the resilience to sea level rise, and the trapping of carbon, metals, and nitrogen important to the restoration and function of salt marshes in overall adaptation to climate change.
  4. A number of coastal resiliency programs have been implemented around the Gulf of Maine, each generating extensive information. Encouraging people to use this information in the course of making decisions regarding mitigation and adaptation to climate change is a major challenge. For example, the information could be used in transitioning fisheries, considering property insurance, dealing with local sea level rise, considering the cost of inaction, and recognizing the importance of trust in the overall process of knowledge transfer.
  5. Ocean acidification is a scientifically complex subject. Given the predictions of reduced pH (increased acidification) in the Gulf of Maine, important fisheries such as lobster, clam and scallops, and aquaculture of oysters, will be affected, with accompanying social implications. Coastal water pH also varies with seasons, temperature, and location, with many potential biogeochemical feedback loops. Ocean acidification can and should be monitored using an enhanced “integrated sentinel monitoring network” with buoyed instruments to measure pH and predictors of pH (temperature, salinity, oxygen, nitrates) via modelling. Given the complexity of understanding the processes and implications of ocean acidification, understanding the multiple stressors and their interactions is needed, as well as collaborative monitoring utilizing citizen scientists and sharing information through various networks, e.g., the Ocean Acidification Information Exchange.
  6. The anticipated impacts of warming waters (increased surface and bottom temperatures) are a major concern, as the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s waters. This development has implications for the distribution of plankton (e.g., zooplankton such as Calanus) and other species (e.g., whales), as well for the spread of invasive species and diseases. Considerable effort is being directed to modelling temperatures, salinity and stratification, in the context of IPCC scenarios. Temperature changes have affected kelp forests in the southern Gulf of Maine, an economic and ecological resource, and consequently the shallow subtidal ecology. Seabirds, right whales, and fisheries (hence fishing communities) have been or will be affected by the changing water temperatures, due to the shifting distribution of species affected.

The important role of data collection and information sharing was emphasized throughout the symposium. Besides formal scientific approaches, fishermen could be employed to collect temperature data, given the concerns about lobster and crab fisheries under higher temperatures. The Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, for example, has initiated a program called “coastal environmental baseline data collection.” Citizen science efforts in monitoring the coastal environment should be supported, and linkages strengthened between scientists and coastal communities. Information on climate change should be communicated to different audiences, as well as listening to the concerns of communities.

As a final reflection on the symposium, it is clear that greater effort is needed to speed up the response to climate change, to learn more about the various interacting variables affecting coastal waters, and to communicate with various audiences across the sectors. Scientific reports can be “translated” into usable information for various users. Collaborative research and greater sharing of information are required. It is especially important, and mentioned by numerous speakers, that information about these subjects be made available in the schools in the region, so that the next generation of active citizens is well informed and interested in acting on the issues at the local level. Finally, discussion on these important topics should be continued in other fora, such as at the upcoming BoFEP Bay of Fundy Science Workshop, Truro, Nova Scotia, 13-15 May 2020.

Author: Peter G. Wells

Photo credit: Frenchman’s Bay from the top of Cadillac Mountain, Mount Desert Island, Maine (P. G. Wells)

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