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October 27, 1999

Head Mass Fishermen Challenge New England Aquarium to Take Stand Against Oil and Gas Drilling on Georges Bank

MFP Issues Rebuttal

BOSTON - Alarmed by the recent white paper issued by the New England Aquarium entitled "Potential Environmental Consequences of Petroleum Exploration and Development on Georges Bank," the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership (MFP) released a report today strongly critical of the Aquarium white paper and calling on the Aquarium to take a stand. The Aquarium’s paper fails to take a position on oil and gas exploration and drilling in spite of overwhelming evidence of potential environmental damage by these activities.

The Canadian Government is currently on the verge of deciding the future of oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank. By the end of this year, Canada must either extend the existing Moratorium that has been in effect since 1988 or offshore leasing for petroleum exploration could begin.

"Given the critical timing, it seems irresponsible to produce such a superficial document. It could significantly influence the decision without taking a firm position either endorsing or disagreeing with the Canadian recommendation," said David Lincoln, an environmental consultant working for the Massachusetts Fishermen's Partnership and the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association. "A Canadian government science panel recommended extending the moratorium in July, and the critical review made by that team was far more comprehensive than that of the committee working on the Aquarium white paper," Lincoln also said.

In a letter to the Massachusetts Fishermen's Partnership (MFP), Jerry Schubel, president of the New England Aquarium, said that while many individual members of the staff have concluded that the moratorium should be extended, the Aquarium "has no mechanism for taking a position as an organization on issues like the extension of the Georges Bank moratorium." He goes on to say that the white paper published by the Aquarium includes information not reviewed by the Canadian Georges Bank Review Panel.

The MFP strongly refuted the Aquarium's inability to make a conclusion from the information cited in the white paper. The MFP critique released to the public today is called "Whitewashed: Implications of the Georges Bank Oil and Gas White Paper" and is available through the MFP website.

"Even without the huge mass of data ignored by the Aquarium's paper, information included in the Aquarium's own report is more than adequate to conclude that the impacts of seismic testing and drilling would be very destructive to the sensitive ecosystem of Georges Bank," according to Lincoln.

The findings of the Aquarium's own Steering Committee (consisting of 3 representatives from the Aquarium and two from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) show that exploration and production activities could have a significant negative effect on marine species and the livelihood of fishermen.

For example, the White Paper reported that a seismic survey involves loud explosions (roughly equivalent to a lightning strike on the surface of the water or a seafloor volcanic eruption) occurring approximately every 10 seconds. The Steering committee concluded that:

"Seismic noise can disturb and modify the behavior of fishes over distances of several kilometers in ways that alter commercial fishing success."

Also, since "weather effectively limits seismic operations to summer months on Georges Bank," the impact of these activities could be worsened.

Regarding marine pollution, the Aquarium cites a study which estimates that drilling mud and cuttings discharges would be massive. For a likely 3 well exploration program, discharge of bulk mud at the end of drilling would be 450-1200 tons with an additional 600 to 3000 tons (dry mass) of cuttings probably dumped into the ocean. For a development program of 50 wells, the drilling mud discharge would be 45,000 tons with cuttings possibly providing an additional 50,000 tons of contaminants into the marine environment. The White Paper summarized this impact as follows:

"Most benthic organisms are highly specialized for the grain size of sediments to which they are adapted. Organisms adapted to coarse sediments are unlikely to benefit from the addition of fine-grained material."

This would seem to be an extremely curious way to describe mortality of benthic organisms buried under hundreds of tons of discharged mud and cuttings from a single well.

The MFP believes it is unconscionable in view of these facts for the Aquarium's Steering Committee not to take a stand to oppose oil and gas operations on Georges Bank. It is unfortunate that the New England Aquarium, the only institution to attempt a detailed re-creation of the Georges Bank habitat for educational purposes, was unable to come to a conclusion at this time about what should be done to protect the Bank’s future.

The Canadian Georges Bank Review Panel appears to have had no difficulty making a conclusive determination. Their one sentence recommendation leaves no room for misunderstanding and states succinctly:

"The panel recommends that action be taken to have the moratorium on petroleum activities on Georges Bank remain in place."

The Provincial Government of Nova Scotia has endorsed this decision.
David Bergeron, MFP coordinator, said that "we are not saying that the evidence bars offshore oil drilling in every case, but we are saying, 'not on Georges Bank.'" "As one of the most productive fishing grounds on earth, Georges Bank is too important to take such a risk. The stakes are just too high."

The MFP is confident that after assimilating all of the related documents which have been made available in the past year on the Georges Bank Moratorium issue no impartial panel or steering committee representing American interests could disagree with the Canadian recommendation.

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