The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) says that the newly unveiled strategy comes at a critical time, since many populations of Atlantic salmon have declined to historically low levels across their North American range.
The Climate Action Plan primarily targets greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to global warming. While a warming global climate may have its own implications for the health of aquatic ecosystems, a key benefit to species like Atlantic salmon comes indirectly, through actions that promote switching fuel sources from coal to natural gas and renewables.
The fact that burning coal is about twice as carbon-intensive as natural gas has fueled the incentive to phase out older coal technologies, that for decades, emitted greenhouse gasses as well as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, the primary ingredients of acid rain.
‘Acid rain’ became an environmental buzz word in the 1980’s, once scientists and policy makers realized that the acidification of lakes, rivers and streams had been silently killing an extraordinary number of fish down-wind of major coal powered electrical facilities.
Changes made by the U.S. Congress to the Clean Air Act in 1990 reduced the deposition of acid rain by as much as 40 per cent, and so the problem was largely thought to be resolved.
In some parts of North America, however, the legacy of acid rain and its continued deposition- albeit less severe- continues to suppress natural productivity in freshwater ecosystems.
Lewis Hinks, ASF’s Director of Programs in Nova Scotia, Canada, has worked with government, scientists, and local communities for over two decades, in some of the areas most affected by acid rain in North America. For Mr Hinks, Obama’s promise of clean air is good news for fresh water.
“If you thought the days of acid rain were over," says Mr Hinks, “visit the southern uplands region of Nova Scotia. We are still struggling with high acidity levels here, because our granite rock geology is very slow to repair the soils needed to neutralize acidic water."
Nova Scotia, though thousands of miles away from the power plants targeted by the Climate Action Plan, falls downwind of acid rain pollution coming from the American Midwest, especially the Ohio Valley. No less than 50 of Nova Scotia’s rivers have been impacted by acid rain, 14 of which have had their wild Atlantic salmon populations completely wiped out. Salmon populations on other rivers exist only on life-support, through the ongoing use of a sophisticated liming program to neutralize acidity.
“Through liming, we have been able to reduce acid-related mortality of wild Atlantic salmon to nearly zero, and juvenile salmon (smolt) production has significantly increased in limed sections of the rivers”, says Mr Hinks. “But we can’t keep doing this forever. In order for fish communities to persist, the conditions in our rivers need to be restored naturally, through the elimination of acid rain."
Mr Hinks is cautiously optimistic that the shift away from coal-based electrical power, as outlined in the new Climate Action Plan, will contribute to the recovery of wild salmon and other fish populations across the Eastern United States and Atlantic Canada.
Under Obama’s new plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will issue a proposal by late September to regulate greenhouse gases from new power plants. By next June, EPA will propose guidelines for states to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Once implemented, these new regulations could bring an end to the era of ‘dirty’ coal technologies, and provide some much-needed relief to aquatic communities that continue to be affected by acid rain today.