Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tribes concerned about loss of fishing due to oil spills

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Tribes concerned about loss of fishing due to oil spills
02/22/10 · 7:48 am :: posted by CCToday

Worried on Georges Bank

From Wampanoags in hollowed out log canoes to the reliable birch bark craft above of the Mi'kmaq, Beothuk and Maliseet/Passamoquoddy peoples, native populations hunted many species of fish, as well as whales and seals.

Special to Cape Cod Today by Timothy Gillespie

Aboriginal fishermen on Georges Bank are worried. Very worried. For hundreds - if not thousands - of years their ancestors have fished the rugged, rocky coastlines and the more subdued shorelines and sandy beaches on and surrounding the Gulf of Maine, including Georges Bank. From the sturdy hollowed log canoe of the Wampanoag to the reliable birch bark craft of the Mi'kmaq, Beothuk and Maliseet/Passamoquoddy peoples, native populations hunted many species of fish, as well as whales and seals. After having been essentially excluded from the commercial fishery in Nova Scotia for some time, Aboriginal fisherman have seen a dramatic growth in their ranks in the past ten years and they are worried that this productive period could come to an abrupt end by the dangers posed by recent moves to approve oil and gas production on Georges Bank.

Adding to their concern is the catastrophic leak last August from the West Atlas Montara drilling platform operating in the Timor Sea off Australia. Crude oil leaking unabated for ten weeks into the surrounding water resulted in a surface slick encompassing more than 9,000 square miles. The Australian Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism estimated that the Montara oil leak could be as high as 2000 barrels per day, or 22 million litres during the 71-day leak. Eventually, the rig was engulfed in a massive "disaster movie" fire that destroyed the facility. It is estimated that the massive spill from the state-of-the-art rig resulted in thousands of dead fish, turtles and sea snakes.

Canada owns 16% but neither fish nor oil can read maps

Georges Bank is the most unique and productive marine environment and fishing ground between Cape Cod and Labrador. The Canadian portion (16%) is now under the protection of an oil and gas moratorium, but government statements in the past months indicate a growing appetite to explore for oil and gas in these incredibly fecund waters. In the Canadian portion of Georges Bank catches for cod, haddock, yellow flounder, lobster, scallops and other species have totaled more than $2 billion over the past ten 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, operating out of ports in Maine, Massachusetts and elsewhere. "This is simply one of the best fishing grounds in the world," says Bee D'Entremont, who has been fishing in the area for more than 15 years. "The total biomass is phenomenal." He adds, "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."

Aboriginal communities have entered the Nova Scotia commercial fishery in record numbers.

Aboriginal communities have entered the Nova Scotia commercial fishery in record numbers - with Native held licenses increasing by more than 400%, from 316 to 1238 from 1999 to 2009. 17 of the 34 Maritimes First Nation's Bands are engaged in fisheries which have an interest in Georges Bank and two of three of the area's Native Councils are engaged in commercial fisheries which have an interest in the fate of George's Bank. All of these bands and councils strongly support the continuation of the current moratorium on oil and gas on Georges Bank, which is slated to end in 2012.

The risk to Native fishers is far greater than the four hundred or so who captain and crew the boats fishing for groundfish, scallops and lobsters, but extends to those earning salaries for support, administration and other work surrounding the communal commercial fishery activities. In 2009, the Native Council of Nova Scotia engaged 13 commercial fishing vessels in various commercial fisheries in Nova Scotia, generating some $750,000.00 in employment earnings and in the Bay of Fundy, First Nation fisheries include some 70 commercial fishing licenses that generate $13.3 million annually based on 2004 average price and catch. In the Scallop fishery, there are 27 communal commercial licenses, with an estimated revenue of $3.1 million annually.

In the region, according to a 2009 report from the Atlantic Policy Council of First Nation Chiefs, more than 1,000 jobs have been created in communal commercial fisheries administration, there has been a high rate of participation by First Nations communities in fishery management and a Asolid initial platform of revenue generation, employment, corporate and fisheries management expertise development in the fishery."

The relatively recent addition of this income provides a more stable, sustainable and integrated economy for aboriginal fishers, families and communities - the non-government revenues generated from Aboriginal fishing enterprises are increasingly vital to the Aboriginal Communities, who depend upon the funds for community infrastructure and housing, education and public works projects, social assistance and community and health services, recreation, youth and elder outreach and other activities.

"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+ years and now Commercial Fisheries Liaison Coordinator for the Unama'ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR).

The decades of exploration, drilling and production in offshore regions the world over has resulted in thousands of spills of various sizes and severity and Aboriginal and other fishermen who make a living from Georges Bank remain concerned about spills and the many yet unknown effects on fish and other marine species, from possible damage from seismic testing to pollution from "produced water". The extent of "exclusion zones" in such a small area could make much of the prime fishing grounds off limits for decades. The possibility of a modern catastrophe the likes of the recent Montara spill in Australia is almost too awful to imagine.

"Offshore oil exploration could jeopardize the financial benefits that Mi'kmaq communities enjoy from the fishery," Nicholas adds. "If something were to go wrong with offshore gas exploration it would affect the species that live there as well as in the Bay of Fundy and Eastern Nova Scotia. While oil companies claim that they are safe, oil spills continue to occur and have a devastating effect on the environment." The unique "gyre" of ocean currents on Georges would also ensure that a spill of any consequence would pollute the enormous American herring fishery and would wash up on the shores of Massachusetts and other New England states.

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.

"The recent, horrific spill in Australia 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, he adds. "Why we would ever risk damaging or destroying it is simply beyond me. We should just leave it alone".

Timothy Gillespie is a writer and artist living in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. His work has also appeared in the Providence Journal, New Bedford Standard-Times, Calgary Herald, Monterey Herald, Nova Scotia Business Journal, Liverpool Advance, Oakland Post and elsewhere.

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