BOSTON (WHDH) - Aiming to support a growing sector of the economy while maintaining its commitment to protecting endangered species and ecosystems, the New England Aquarium on Thursday rolled out a “blue economy” legislative agenda that focuses on things like grants for fishing vessels to buy new gear that’s less likely to entangle whales, carbon sequestration strategies and updated state waste plans that prioritize keeping materials and products in circulation for as long as possible.

The blue economy — everything from marine shipping to ocean research and offshore wind development — includes about 6,000 businesses employing more than 100,000 people in Massachusetts, and is valued at $8.2 billion, the aquarium said. Between 2009 and 2019, the sector grew by 38 percent and is poised for even greater growth as the offshore wind industry gets going.

“The increased use of our ocean has brought countless economic benefits to the state and its residents, and it will continue to do so. But the growing industrialization of the ocean, combined with warming waters in the Gulf of Maine, is threatening and in some cases causing significant changes to our coastal ecosystems,” aquarium president and CEO Vikki Spruill said at a press conference on the edge of Boston Harbor. “We know that increasing use of the ocean must be done responsibly to ensure that ecosystems and marine species are not harmed and that all Massachusetts residents can benefit from the growth of the blue economy. Responsible use of the ocean requires a focus on science, a focus on conservation, and a focus on equity.”

An example of the conflict between ocean industry and marine species was made obvious in a separate press release sent out by the aquarium Thursday reacting to the death of an endangered North Atlantic right whale that washed ashore Sunday in Virginia Beach. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the 20-year-old male died of “catastrophic blunt force trauma,” which aquarium scientists said was consistent with a vessel strike.

“I’m often asked if we are doing enough to protect right whales. While important steps have been made to protect these whales in both the U.S. and Canada, the whales themselves are showing us through these entanglements and this death that clearly more needs to be done,” Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said.

The suite of bills that the aquarium is pushing for this session includes HD 1564 / SD 1689 filed by Sen. Susan Moran and Rep. Kathleen LaNatra, which would create three new state grant programs. One would support research, development and expansion of new blue technologies, a second would fund education, training and job placement for students from environmental justice communities to get exposure to jobs in “blue-STEAM industries,” and a third would be a business grant program to help companies become more sustainable.

“The blue economy is scientific advancement, but it’s also our fisheries, construction companies that build our coastal infrastructure, and the people working in the boat yards,” Moran, of Falmouth, said Thursday. “So what does this look like in practice? I filed ‘an act relative to a future blue economy’ … to establish grants that fund an even more ambitious future for Massachusetts in this sector by expanding educational and career development resources specifically for programs that reach historically disenfranchised communities and incentivize research in the realm of marine technology.”

Moran also touted a bill she filed in conjunction with Rep. Jessica Giannino (HD 554 / SD 1700) to require a state net-positive carbon sequestration goal. Giannino said the bill also requires the state to study the carbon sequestration capacities of its salt marshes, sea grasses and waterways with an eye towards its goal of being a net-zero emissions state by 2050.

“Natural and working lands such as forests, farmlands and marshes, by design, capture and release carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Giannino said. “The ocean plays an important role in carbon sequestration, as it absorbs about 31 percent of our carbon from our atmosphere. Most significantly, wetland salt marshes and sea grasses convert this [into a] product known as blue carbon. When blue carbon zones remain protected and undisturbed, they can store up to 10 times more than other carbon resources. These blue ecosystems protect our coastline from natural disasters and significant economic loss. They provide aesthetic value, and provide a home for an array of wildlife.”

The state’s climate roadmap law requires Massachusetts to reduce emissions at least 50 percent by 2030, at least 75 percent by 2040 and at least 85 percent by 2050, with tag-along sequestration policies to get the state to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century.

The aquarium is also backing HD 3032 / SD 435 filed by Sen. Julian Cyr and Rep. Dylan Fernandes to create a Massachusetts Ocean Acidification Council. A special legislative committee concluded in 2021 that, unless the increasing acidification of the Atlantic Ocean is addressed, many of the scallops, clams, mollusks and lobsters at the bottom of the Gulf of Maine will begin to dissolve by 2060 and new ones will struggle to form, imperiling a fishing industry that supports thousands of people in the Bay State.

Fernandes said Thursday that ocean acidification can reduce mollusk survival rates by 34 percent and contributes to surviving mollusks being up to 17 percent smaller. He said the bill creates a permanent standing commission on ocean acidification to identify how Massachusetts can address the issue.

“It has funds for monitoring and research of ocean acidification, and incorporates it into state laws so that state agencies have to have it as a plan when they are reducing other forms of nutrient pollution,” Fernandes said. “And this will make a huge impact in saving and strengthening the health and well being of our ocean environment.”

Fernandes also filed an aquarium-backed bill (HD 3054) to create a “Blue Communities Program” to incentivize local action to reduce nutrient pollution and ocean acidification. The program, which was recommended by the Legislature’s own Special Legislative Commission on Ocean Acidification in 2021, would function largely the same way the state’s Green Communities Program rewards cities and towns for taking climate-friendly steps.

The aquarium’s legislative agenda also includes HD 2318/SD 1688 from Moran and LaNatra to update state waste plans; HD 1435 / SD 955 filed by Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Sen. Brendan Crighton to address the development of climate-resilient infrastructure in coastal areas; HD 780 filed by Rep. Josh Cutler to create a new state grant program to help fund the purchase of sub-lethal commercial fishing gear; and SD 896 from Sen. Anne Gobi relative to offshore wind and wildlife habitat management.

(Copyright (c) 2022 State House News Service.

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