Nova Scotia, Canada Extend Offshore Oil and Gas Moratorium in Ecologically Rich Georges Bank

A moratorium on oil and gas development on a large piece of the continental shelf between Southwest Nova Scotia and Cape Cod called Georges Bank will be extended for seven years, protecting the ecologically diverse waters beloved by fishermen and environmental groups in the region.

The shallow waters of Georges Bank, located about 100 kilometres off the Nova Scotia coast is abundant in haddock, halibut and scallops and is a refuge for endangered turtles and whales that migrate through the nutrient-rich corridor.

The shelf is also thought to be home to large quantities of natural gas.

Nova Scotia recently announced it will renew legislation, Bill C-64, this fall that maintains the moratorium, following a similar decision announced by the federal government before parliament broke for summer.

According to Mark Butler, policy director at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, the provincial decision to extend the moratorium “passed at the very last minute.”

“It’s quite amazing, really, but nonetheless it passed.”

Many were holding their breath as the end of the current sitting of Parliament neared. “There was a fair amount of pessimism, so I think everybody was surprised at what happened in the final hours of the House of Commons,” said Butler about Bill C-64. “It passed first, second and third readings in one vote, which is unusual I understand.”

Spill in Georges Bay Would Have “Devastating Effect”

Throughout the history of the moratorium, fishers and groups representing the industry have been outspoken about the importance of the various fisheries on Georges Bank to the regional economy.

“It would be really tough if you had a spill there because of the currents,” said veteran fisher Dale Richardson on his way from his home in Little Harbour on the southern tip of Nova Scotia to Georges Bank to fish for swordfish. “It’s a mixing ground for that Bay of Fundy, northeast seaboard area. The dissipation of an oil slick would be unreal there. It could affect the whole Bay of Fundy and southwest coast of the province.”

Georges Bank has a diverse ecosystem with more than 100 fish species and many more of birds and marine mammals because the nutrient-rich Labrador Current washes over the shallow waters and meets the warmer Gulf Stream. Phytoplankton grows much faster there than on other continental shelves, setting up a feeding cycle for a complex eco-system.

A map of the Gulf of Maine shows the Canada/U.S. border cutting through Georges Bank. Credit: NOAA

While Richardson is a swordfisher in summer, his main occupation is as an inshore lobster fisher. He and the other 10,000 licensed lobster harvesters working off Canada’s East Coast rely on Georges Bank and other breeding grounds to grow a significant proportion of the nearly 75,000 tons of lobster landed in 2013 worth $680.5 million.

“It would have a devastating effect,” said Richardson of any accident involving petroleum on Georges Bank. “It would certainly affect anything that spawns and stays on the surface like lobster larvae, herring and things on or near the surface all the time.”

Lobster, herring, swordfish, bluefin tuna, scallops, cod and haddock — the list of commercial species that rely on Georges Bank as a breeding and feeding ground is significant. Many other important species also live there at certain times of the year including whales such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale, sea turtles, sharks and many species of seabirds.

The Battle for Georges Bank

Georges Bank is a sub-sea plateau of 28,800 square kilometers — about the size of Belgium — that was an island before the last ice age just 12,000 years ago. For the last 400 years, it’s been one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds.

In 1984, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled on a dispute between the U.S. and Canada, dividing Georges Bank between the two countries with the U.S. getting about four fifths.

About 40 years ago, oil companies drilled exploratory wells on Georges, but found nothing. The activity led to calls from fishers and environmental groups on both sides of the border to place a moratorium on oil and gas activity. Both countries did so in 1988, banning drilling until the year 2000.

On the Canadian side, the legislation also called for the creation of a joint federal provincial Public Review Panel, which later recommended extending the moratorium through 2012. The U.S. extended their moratorium a third time, setting an expiration date of 2017. The Canadian and provincial governments only extended theirs through 2015.

This fourth and latest moratorium will protect Georges Bank until 2022 from petroleum related activity by the oil companies that continue to hold exclusive exploratory rights on the Canadian portion of Georges.

Fisheries regulators in the U.S., however, are currently considering opening nearly 13,000 square kilometres of Georges Bank to commercial fisheries. The Fishery Management Council in New England state voted to reopen the area in June although the final decision rests with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A phytoplankton bloom illuminates Georges Bank. Credit: NASA via Stuart Rankin on Flickr.

Calls for More Research, Regulation Before Moratorium Lifted

The rich marine ecosystem of Georges Bank is at risk from more than a well blow out or oil spill, according to a massive 529-page study by the Maritime Region of the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Seismic testing and a wide array of impacts from toxic drilling wastes or produced water can negatively impact the mortality of eggs and larvae and have sub-lethal effects up through the food chain.

Others worry drilling for oil or gas could crowd out the centuries-old fishing industry.

“The area around the rig would close down even if there were no impacts from seismic or produced water or drill muds,” Mark Butler said. “Just the simple loss of access would be enough to hurt the fishing industry.”

Still, not all fishers are against the opening of Georges to the oil industry.

Dale Richardson said he’s not “100 per cent against drilling.”

“I just think we need to have more research. We have a tendency here in Nova Scotia and Canada to come in with the most lax regulations compared to the North Sea or other places. I’m not real comfortable with them going there yet.”

Looking into the future, Butler would rather see the moratorium become permanent than risk further last minute extensions.

“We obviously need to drastically change what types of energy we use and how we use it,” he said.

“Maybe by 2022 we’ll all come to realize we shouldn’t risk important areas like Georges Bank for nonrenewable resources. Maybe we’ll be over the hump by then.”

Image Credit: James Brooks 

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