From Maine to Virginia, Carbon Pollution Limits Can Help Protect Shellfisheries

A new study published this week in Nature Climate Change outlined another of the very real dangers of burning fossil fuels: ocean acidification. For the first time, we have clear documentation of the damage that ocean acidification can do to invaluable U.S. coastal shellfisheries, such as oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. This new study supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center connects the dots from carbon pollution to shellfish to the damaged livelihoods of fishermen and their families.

Coastal communities in 15 states with strong shellfisheries, such as Virginia and Maine, are at high economic risk due to ocean acidification. Shelled mollusk fisheries bring in a billion dollars annually in the United States. The study is a timely alarm bell that we need to shift from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy if we are to preserve the health of our coastal shell fisheries.

Luckily, we have a good start in the United States with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan and specifically with strong carbon pollution limits on coal-burning power plants.

As we increase the carbon pollution in our air, more carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans. Carbon pollution adds to the burdens of coastal waters already experiencing acidification from other sources such as nitrogen pollution runoff. Once dissolved, carbon dioxide increases the acidity of the oceans and reduces carbonate, a key compound shellfish like oysters and clams need to build their shells. Less carbonate means that shellfish must spend more energy on shell-building and less on eating and basic survival. This is bad news for shellfish and means that populations will likely decrease as ocean acidification continues to increase.

Some of the states with shell fisheries most at risk are the same states that are well poised to make progress by shifting from polluting power plants to energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy.

For instance in Virginia, the report found a high risk of economic harm. Let's take a closer look at what this means. Shellfish are a cash crop in Central and Eastern Virginia with commercial shellfish harvests bringing in an average of $67 million annually over the past ten years in York, Charles City, James City, Newport New and Hampton as well as bringing in an average of $14 million annually in Northampton and Accomack counties. Even more, Virginia has a rising aquaculture industry focused on oysters and clams that is already more than 75 percent of the state's $41.5 million in aquaculture sales. Here we see the potential for real dollar damage that putting limits on carbon pollution from power plants can help us avoid.

Virginia is in a good place to move ahead with energy efficiency and renewable energy. The state is already 80 percent of the way toward meeting carbon reduction goals outlined in the EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan, and Governor McAuliffe's 2014 Virginia Energy Plan can get the state the rest of the way.

For example, the Old Dominion is poised to become an offshore wind leader, and has leased more than 100,000 acres on which to construct wind farms. Over $50 million in funding has already been secured to eventually produce up to 2,000 megawatts of renewable, offshore wind electricity.

Virginia can also cost-effectively reduce its emissions 23 percent by 2030 simply by investing in energy efficiency, according to a recent ACEEE report. Currently available technology can be deployed to achieve these reductions and optimize energy use. An NRDC study found that 5,600 jobs could be created largely through tapping Virginia's significant energy efficiency reserves, and the EPA determined that electric bills under the Clean Power Plan would decrease by over 7 percent by 2030, largely through energy efficiency investments.

Clearly, then, in addition to preserving the high economic value of its coastal crab and oyster industries by reducing carbon pollution, the Clean Power Plan will be a win for the rest of the state's economy as well.

Unfortunately, some lawmakers in Virginia's House of Delegates are seeking to put polluter profits before the state's health and economy by adding to a bill pro-polluter language that would unnecessarily delay the cleanup of carbon and thus the protection of the shellfish industry. We're confident the Governor won't allow language that is bad for Virginia to become law, because he recognizes that oysters and other shellfish are part of the Commonwealth's heritage -- and that big polluters are not.

Another example of high risk of economic harm can be found in Maine. Even though the study didn't include lobsters - the shellfish we always associate with Maine - much of the state is dependent on clams, oysters, mussels and scallops. These shellfisheries are critical in a state that saw the collapse of its groundfish stocks in the 1980s and 1990s and just in Downeast Maine, they generate $20 million annually. And it goes without saying that this type of fishery supports thousands of fishermen. In Downeast Maine there are an average of 2,000 fishing licenses given each year to harvest clams, oysters, mussels and scallops.

Maine is another state that shows how we can get a handle on damaging carbon pollution from power plants through shifting to energy efficiency and renewable energy. In 2013, over half of the state's net electricity generation came from renewable energy resources including wind and there's potential for even more. For example, Maine is home to the nation's first commercial, grid-connected tidal energy project, located in Cobscook Bay.

Maine also is a longtime member of the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation's first market-based regulatory program to drive down carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. Proceeds from RGGI are used to improve energy efficiency, and in 2014, Efficiency Maine invested $36.4 million that will result in in nearly $265 in avoided energy costs over the life of the measures installed.

Ocean acidification poses a big threat to shellfish and the fisherman whose livelihoods depend on them. Luckily, clean energy solutions that cut dangerous carbon pollution are already here, and can be deployed with great benefit to the environment and the economy. Energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that curb pollution will have the benefits of growing clean energy jobs as well as of helping to protect critical coastal ecosystems. Affected coastal states such as Virginia and Maine have options to directly curb carbon pollution by being leaders in implementing the EPA plan.