Possible Georges Bank oil spill concerns many

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Some members of the NoRigs3 Coalition are terrified that a dramatic oil spill, similar to that off the coast of Australia late last year, could damage or devastate the unique Georges Bank ecosystem if a moratorium on oil and gas drilling is lifted.

Georges Bank is home to many species of sea life and one of the most productive commercial fisheries in the world. Hubert Nicholas, Mark Butler, Bee d’Entremont and others are members of the NoRigs3 Coalition, a group of fishermen, food processors, environmentalists and others who are opposing any lifting of the moratorium. They believe that the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen who depend on Georges Bank catches could be ruined. “This is simply one of the best fishing grounds in the world,” says Bee d’Entremont, who has been fishing for more than 15 years. “The total biomass is phenomenal. A lot of the species we fish spawn here and depend on the unique circulation of nutrients that the gyre creates. A spill here could kill us.”

The unique nature of the gyre surrounding Georges Bank means that oil contamination from a spill would likely circulate to the coasts of the Bay of Fundy, through the Gulf of Maine and along the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In August 2009, the West Atlas Montara drilling platform operating in the Timor Sea began leaking oil into the surrounding water, resulting in a continuous, 10-week flow of oil creating a surface slick encompassing more than 9,000 square miles (14,486 square kilometres). The Australian Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism estimated the oil leak could have been as high as 2,000 barrels per day, or 22 million litres during the 71-day leak.

It is estimated that the spill from the state-of-the-art rig resulted in thousands of dead fish, turtles and sea snakes. Large numbers of whales, dolphins, turtles and sea birds feed in waters polluted by the oil spill. A full report from the inquiry surrounding the disaster is due in March or April. Immediately following the spill, Indonesian fishermen reported thousands of fish dead in their waters.

Georges Bank is the most unique and productive marine environment and fishing ground between Cape Cod and Labrador. The Canadian portion (16 per cent) is under the protection of an oil and gas moratorium. In the Canadian waters of Georges Bank catches for haddock, yellow flounder, lobster, scallops and other species have totalled more than $2 billion over the past 10 years. Catches for those species plus an enormous herring fishery are estimated to be up to $8 billion in the same period for American fishermen.

Something also unique to the Georges Bank fishery is the opportunity it provides to the Aboriginal fishery in Nova Scotia. “Mi’kmaq communities depend on the income generated from Georges Bank for essential services within its communities such as infrastructure, housing, education, policing and community well-being and if anything was to happen to the ecosystem on Georges Bank 10,000 community members that benefit from profits from the fishery would now be without,” says Hubert Nicholas, a Mi'kmaq commercial fisherman for 20-plus years and now the Commercial Fisheries Liaison Coordinator for the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR). “In addition to damaging the fishing grounds, an oil leak anywhere near the extent of the Atlas disaster would be devastating to the sea life and ecosystem in the area surrounding Georges Bank,” says Ecology Action Centre policy director Mark Butler. “This is an important summer feeding ground for seabirds, whales, sharks, fishes, and turtles, including endangered species such as right whales and loggerhead and leatherback turtles – 200 species in all.”

Recent news stories have also identified Georges Bank as an essential breeding ground for the porbeagle shark.

The coalition members say there have been signals from the oil and gas industry and the Nova Scotia government in past months that there may be a reconsideration of the exploration and drilling moratorium. A difference between the discussion 10 years ago and now is that the government seems to be leading the charge promoting oil and gas development. One of the factors being floated for consideration, according to Denny Morrow, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, is that there is new, safe technology for exploration and production of offshore oil and gas. “This horrific spill of millions of litres of oil from one of the most modern operations ever should tell us how safe oil and gas drilling is for the sea, the fish and the surrounding habitat,” Morrow says. It is a special and unique place, with fish and shellfish spawning 12 months a year. Why we would ever risk damaging or destroying it is simply beyond me. We should just leave it alone.”

Organizations: Possible Georges Bank, NoRigs3 Coalition, Department of Resources Commercial Fisheries Liaison Coordinator Institute of Natural Resources UINR Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association

Geographic location: Australia, Maine, Bay of Fundy Massachusetts Rhode Island Timor Sea Nova Scotia Cape Cod Labrador

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