YARMOUTH, Nova Scotia — The possibility of oil and gas activity on the rich fishing grounds of Georges Bank brought experts from Scotland, Norway, the United States and western Canada to Yarmouth over the weekend.
Their message to the audience was that oil and fish can and do mix in other parts of the world, and the result is positive.
“We have 400 oil platforms in our sector of the North Sea, all are producing, and fishing vessels fish around these things day in and day out,” said Michael Sutherland, manager of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.
But the concern of local fishermen and environmentalists was that Georges Bank is not like any other part of the world. The vast fishing grounds stretch from Cape Cod to the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.
“There is an excess of oil in the world, but not an excess of fish,” said Denny Morrow, co-chairman of NORIG 2000, an organization of fishermen opposed to lifting the current moratorium on oil and gas exploration drilling on Georges Bank.
“Why should we risk what is probably one of the most productive areas in the world?” Morrow asked.
David Lincoln, an American environmental consultant, agreed.
“Of all the places I’ve ever seen, Georges Bank is the last place I’d consider lifting a moratorium. It’s the heart of the fishing industry.”
The Canadian moratorium on oil and gas exploration on Georges Bank expires Jan. 1, 2000. Part of the joint Canadian and provincial Nova Scotian governments’ legislation leading to the ban requires public reviews before expiration to determine whether the moratorium should be lifted or continued. Once public hearings have been held, the government-appointed panel will make a recommendation.
The conference was organized by the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce to provide relevant information to residents of southwestern Nova Scotia before the hearings, and organizers felt this goal was accomplished.
Although panelists and presenters could not quantify the exact impact on Georges Bank — since the fishing grounds have never been exploited on the Canadian side — they felt the industries could coexist as long as there was communication between the two.
“Fear of the unknown is understandable,” said Earl Johnson, a Newfoundland fisherman who has been involved with the oil industry, government and fishermen, and who has spoken on fish and oil issues around the world. He said offshore oil drilling can be an aid to fishermen.
“Rigs can be offshore safety centers for messages, refueling and weather forecasts. The restricted areas surrounding the rigs have become nurseries for shellfish,” Johnson said.
Robert Fournier, a Dalhousie University oceanography professor who was chairman of the Joint Public Review Panel for the Sable Island Offshore Energy Project, said the determination on the moratorium on Georges Bank must be a societal decision in which cost is balanced with benefits.
“How do you judge what is acceptable? It must be a cooperative decision based on some commonly acceptable values,” he said.
Fournier, the keynote speaker for the conference, said it is becoming increasingly clear that oil companies around the world are interested in eastern Canada, and that the offshore waters undoubtedly will be developed.
“It’s important that citizens and all stakeholders be involved in this process,” he said.
Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce organizers said 130 people, including fishermen, politicians, businesspeople and interested citizens, registered for the conference.
Friday’s presentations dealt with the possible effects of seismic exploration, drilling mud, processed water from drilling, and oil and gas blowouts on the fish population and fishing activities. Saturday’s presentations centered on the potential economic spinoffs of such exploration and development.
After each presentation was a discussion by a panel made up of people with firsthand experience in dealing with oil and gas in a fishing environment. The panelists included: George Sutherland, vice president of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation in Scotland; Michael Sutherland; Nicholas Wade of Norway, author of “Co-Existence Offshore” and organizer of similar conferences in his home country; Earl Johnson of Newfoundland; and Don Gordon, a research scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia.