Our View: To grow our economy, Maine should look north

An Eimskip container ship, the Skogafoss, is docked at the Portland International Marine Terminal in 2013. A jump in Maine's exports to six of the Arctic Council's other member nations is directly attributable to Eimskip's arrival in Maine. File photo/John Patriquin

An Eimskip container ship, the Skogafoss, is docked at the Portland International Marine Terminal in 2013. A jump in Maine's exports to six of the Arctic Council's other member nations is directly attributable to Eimskip's arrival in Maine. File photo/John Patriquin

Mainers are accustomed to looking to the south and west for economic development opportunities. But what if the fertile ground were actually to our north? An ongoing forum in Portland gives Maine an invaluable chance to expand markets for our goods and services by building on existing Arctic connections.

The Arctic Council conference kicked off Tuesday and runs through Thursday, and the future of the Arctic countries – the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden – is at the center of the closed-door science and policy discussions involving the eight nations’ top officials.

There’s a lot for them to get a grip on. Climate change-driven Arctic sea ice melt could affect everything from housing and employment to energy and food supplies. The Arctic nations have to prepare for both the worst- and best-case scenarios.

The upside – if it can be called that – of climate change is the idea that it eventually will open up new Arctic shipping routes. But under even the most aggressive melt scenarios, observers say, it will be at least 20 years before it will be commercially viable to ship cargoes along routes atop Canada or Russia.

Meanwhile, Maine has immediate shipping opportunities in the Arctic markets. When Eimskip decided in 2013 to make Portland its North American logistical hub, that put our state on the map for the Icelandic steamship line’s other ports, many of which have to import everything from groceries to building supplies.

“For the first time in 50 years, Maine has a direct line to Europe,” Patrick Arnold, president of the Maine company that operates Portland’s shipping container terminal, recently told the Maine Sunday Telegram.

And it’s paying off. Maine exported $37.2 million in goods to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden in 2015 – a 57 percent jump over 2010 that is directly attributable to Eimskip’s arrival, according to Maine Port Authority officials.

The Maine law firm Verrill Dana’s establishment last year of an Arctic division points to another export opportunity: Services – not just legal but also consulting, science and research – also have value as part of the trading picture.

For too long, Mainers have apologized for our location – now’s the time to capitalize on it. Let’s seize the day and move forward.