By Doreen Leggett
When a tanker named the Argo Merchant broke up and sent crude oil spewing onto Nantucket Shoals in 1976, many breathed a sigh of relief because winds were favorable and there were few fish around in the depths of December.
But even so, an article in The Atlantic around that time said the oil slick killed 20 percent of the cod eggs and close to 50 percent of the pollock eggs it touched and its remnants damaged the ocean bottom in myriad ways.
That 40-year history, a more recent accident in Buzzard’s Bay that belched oil over 90 miles of coastline, and the much more devastating disaster when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, have all been brought up lately as the Trump administration contemplates opening up the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf off New England to drilling for oil and gas. The vexing issue that came up in the 1970s, 1980s and even as recently as 2008, is back.
“We’ve always been deathly afraid of that,” said Captain Eric Hesse, who in recent weeks has been steaming out to harvest haddock in the Gulf of Maine. “That would just destroy people’s livelihoods.”
Fishermen have rallied against the idea every time it’s come up. This year is no different, and the arguments remain constant and range from habitat concerns to access issues to environmental destruction. Even more galling, the whole effort seems unnecessary.
Recent work on has shown there is only about a decade’s worth –optimistically – of oil available in waters off the coast, yet capturing it could destroy a fishing tradition that extends back 350 years.
The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance finds that stance wrong-headed.
“I see no compelling reason to drill. It creates far more problems than it solves,” said John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance. “It is a terrible idea.”
He said the United States has never needed to drill off the New England coast. Doing it now when we are a net exporter of oil and moving away from fossil fuels toward renewables is nonsensical.
“What are our priorities as a country?” Pappalardo asked. “Do we really want to exploit the most fertile fishing grounds in the world? Drilling on Georges Bank is not a viable future for our society. A sustainable fishing industry is.”
The New England Fishery Management Council, which Papparlardo sits on, has come out strongly against the idea, calling it an “inappropriate” risk.
The council’s concerns range from direct displacement of fishermen to the harm that will be caused to inshore habitats when the infrastructure needed to support an Atlantic oil and gas industry is built.
Pappalardo, Hesse and others are watching as the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management holds hearings on the possibility of leasing the ocean bottom to energy interests. They, like other fishermen, appreciate the exceptionally productive environment found off the Cape’s shores.
Charlie Dodge, who has been fishing for close to 40 years, said the gyres and merging currents on Georges Bank make it a vital habitat for spawning fish. Models of those currents have shown how lobsters in deep offshore canyons help populate inshore areas — and how an oil spill on the Bank could reach the entire shoreline of the Cape and all of Cape Cod Bay.
Dodge said he is supportive of some of President Donald Trump’s ideas, but not this one.
“The biggest concern is the environmental impact,” he added. Plus, the area can be inhospitable with extreme weather that can take down even an enormous oil rig.
“We aren’t talking about a very nice environment,” he said.
Fishermen have also pointed out that unlike the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Northern Atlantic doesn’t have the array of natural microbes that can break down toxic oil. That is why researchers have said that even a small spill will have much more of a negative impact here.
Fishermen also fear increased traffic and the cable, pipe, and other equipment that may end up on the bottom and destroy fishing gear, or cut off access to grounds.
It isn’t just removing the oil or natural gas from the sea bed that is worrisome. Adverse effects start when companies begin looking for oil and gas.
According to reporting in the British newspaper The Guardian, seismic air guns, used to find the size and location of hydrocarbons under the sea floor, blast noise one quadrillion (a million billions) times louder than a motorcycle. That extreme noise has severe ramifications on marine life, including squid, herring, haddock and scallops.
Not surprisingly, the noise can blow apart the intestines of animals and has been found to kill scallops instantly. Finfish also are impacted; after seismic surveys were conducted, catch rates of cod and haddock declined by 40 to 80 percent for thousands of miles, according to the environmental group Oceana.
The intense, repetitive sound isn’t helpful to whales, either. Research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that the critically endangered right whale is the most at risk.
It’s not just fishermen who are railing against the idea of opening the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf to energy companies. Many state and federal legislators have spoken out against the plan, as well as numerous environmental and business groups.
“It is kind of trampling on what people want,” Hesse concluded.