Last month, the first fatal shark attack in Maine’s history occurred only 20 yards off the coast of Bailey Island in Harpswell, Maine. Not only did this event close many of Maine’s beaches and slow tourism in coastal towns, but it also presented a frightening vision of Maine’s future– one where a warming Gulf of Maine brings more shark attacks and changing fisheries, inevitably affecting the whole of Maine’s economy. New evidence of sharks in the Gulf of Maine is a disturbing sign of rapid climate change, which will harm both Maine’s economy and important fishing industries, a future some believe is inaccurate and unlikely.
A Frightening Wake-Up Call
July’s shark attack, which resulted in the death of 63-year-old seasonal Harpswell resident Julie Dimperio Holowach, reverberated through Maine’s small towns. Since this event, Mainers have spotted half-eaten seals up and down the coast, with large bite marks. There have been other unofficial sightings of Great white sharks in the area, creating more concern and fear among residents.
Many state parks and beaches restricted water access to waist-deep, measures which were largely lifted in early August but remained in some southern parks. These actions drew people away from coastal communities, which are already struggling as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. More frightening than these short-term effects are the implications for Maine’s future– one in which a rapidly-warming Gulf of Maine is likely to make events like these far more common, and impact fisheries and tourism in countless other ways.
Gulf of Maine Warming
According to NASA’s Global Earth Observatory, the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming bodies of water in the world, at a rate “seven times the global average” and “faster than 99 percent of the global ocean”. As a place that relies heavily on our abundant fisheries and temperate weather, this change spells disaster for Mainers and our economy. Predictions about the Gulf’s warming, like these informative graphs from NOAA Fisheries, often come as a shock to those who enjoy Maine and still see Maine’s oceans as a cool, abundant resource. Something as visceral as a shark attack is an important reminder that some species previously unseen in these waters may become frequent visitors, disrupting ecosystems and making Maine’s natural resources unmarketable.
Why Is This Important?
Maine’s water temperatures are rapidly warming, pushing important fish species further and further Northeast, into cooler Canadian waters. Lobstering, a $485 million industry in 2019, is peaking currently because of suitable water temperatures for lobsters, but the tides may soon drastically turn for lobstermen. As water temperatures continue to climb, lobsters will be unable to thrive, likely meaning the end of this incredibly profitable and important industry. Other species may follow suit, and be replaced by less-profitable invasive species, such as inhospitable green crabs. Economically, these new ecosystems would be disastrous for Maine, which relies on many millions of visitors each year, many of whom come specifically for lobsters and cool temperatures.
Skepticism In The Gulf
Many remain skeptical about this warming and see Maine’s fisheries as being on the up and up– evidenced by Maine’s continually climbing lobster price-by-pound and banner catch in 2019, as explained in the Bangor Daily News. However, these observations fail to take into account the fact that the oceans are not staying at their current temperature, and instead are continuing to warm, taking with them habitable conditions for lobsters and pushing those populations away from Maine. Research groups such as the Gulf of Maine Research Institute are working hard to make the public aware of these changes and help communities prepare for the inevitable. It is important that we, as a state, consider these changes before they arrive, and work to pivot both our fishing and tourism industries to accommodate our new sea conditions. It is also important that we work to limit our carbon emissions and work to lower the amount of predicted warming, a task we will not be able to complete alone.
How This Incident Can Make Change
Currently, those invested in climate change in Maine are mostly limited to research scientists and local inhabitants. These groups cannot tackle this issue by themselves and need the support of others who enjoy Maine as it currently is. The presence of sharks, and closing down of beaches, is an important reminder for everyone that Maine is changing, and quickly. Hopefully, with the addition of interest and investment from Maine’s visitors, we can work to mitigate these changes and find new ways to appreciate Maine and slow the effects of climate change that will so drastically change this state. Hopefully, visitors to this state will begin to think of their own actions, and the actions of governments in mitigating the climate crisis and act in order to save the places we know and love.