State marine conservation chief on frontline of climate change

Marsha Linebaugh, the state’s chief harbormaster, is leading the fighting for seals, whales and dolphins in the Atlantic

She lives on land, sea and continent, but in the US there is one job Marsha Linebaugh cannot quit. As chief harbormaster, she leads the fight for threatened creatures from sea otters to whales and dolphins.

As the marshlands of Maine’s Gulf of Maine wash away, imperilling everything she calls home, she wades into the water to comb the waves for distressed fish and fish carcasses. Once she discovers something more grave, such as a dead sea creature or a beaten-up seal, she gets the phone call.

“It’s very overwhelming and stressful,” she said.

New Britain, Maine

Marsha Linebaugh cleans up a dead sea animal that washed up on shore in New Britain on 15 August. Photograph: Curtis Sisson/Reuters

She started the job in 2002, when part of the Arctic had broken away and the bodies of seals washed up in the harbour in New Britain.

“It’s a sudden event. It’s everywhere,” she said.

Fortunately, the harbour divers and harbormasters working her ward also know what they are doing and are able to find the carcasses quickly, she said. She normally calls in Sea Tow, an outfitter.

“They are the experts. They know what to do and they are in place when I call them,” she said.

In the meantime, she tries to alert her friends in the air and help them to identify what it is. But there is little she can do until the Ragged Lady, her floatable version of a life raft, has arrived.

The churning waters have dropped the dead sea animal’s buoyancy, so it needs to be hand-carried down on ropes, either by hand or by C-130 planes on the way to the sanctuary of the Noyes Research Refuge, 200 miles up the coast.

The harbor divers and harbour masters are well trained, they know what is required, and usually it will be an endangered fish they are trying to get a hold of, “but the seals are the tough ones,” Linebaugh said.

But when they are bad, they are really bad. In 2012, one seal washed up on the shores of Middletown, Maine. The fourth-degree burns on its moulting skin were visible.

“I was in awe to see such intricate scars for such an innocent animal,” she said.

New England is the second most vulnerable ecosystem to climate change after the tropics, a new report by scientists has warned. That has inevitably led to a wave of migratory sea creatures coming ashore. From the common goldfish to cormorants, seals and sea stars, declining or disappearing sea ice makes their journey difficult, or impossible.

In fact, we may already be in the grips of a whole new wave of climate change.

Remarkably, this has not done much harm to her town. New Britain has long since diversified away from fishing, and now calls itself “Washington state in Maine”. Linesbaugh’s husband, four of her children and all five dogs are in the country.

More than anything, she said, it’s her family who is responsible for her job.

“It’s what she wants to do, it’s what she loves to do,” said Joan Lejewski, head of the marine mammal and sea turtle programme at the New England Aquarium.

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