One industry risking another: McCurdy

Ashley
Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Consultations the least of what should be required for big oil: FFAW

While offshore oil developments like Hebron fill the provincial coffers, those in the fishing industry continue to shoulder the fear of losing their livelihoods to an oil spill or similarly damaging event, according to Fish, Food and Allied Workers' (FFAW) president Earle McCurdy.

McCurdy addressed this intersection of industries at a session of the Hebron Public Review at the Delta hotel in St. John's Tuesday.

He said oil projects might not take up much total square footage within the province's offshore area, but when looking at their potential effects it is really about placement, not size. Prime, productive fishing grounds are not found in all parts of the ocean.

"It's just like expecting all of Newfoundland and Labrador to produce blueberries," he said, noting the Grand Banks would be one of the "key areas," an ideal patch, for the provincial fishery.

In considering the potential for a catastrophic event, like a blowout or major oil spill, he suggested it is all the more significant in that it will be centred on traditionally prime fishing ground.

Aside from the immediate effects, there would be latent negative effects from such an event, he said, such as a public perception of a tainted seafood product even as the seafood passes safety testing. He used the example of shrimp fishermen in Louisiana, working to turn around the view of their product since the highly publicized blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

McCurdy acknowledged the oil and gas industry as the key player in the province's ongoing economic boom.

There are regular announcements of new real estate developments in St. John's and the creation of new jobs from spinoffs felt around the province, but "the people in the fishing industry get the risk," he told Commissioner Miller Ayre.

He raised hypotheticals for events other than spills, also with the potential to devastate sectors of the fishery - such as the introduction of an invasive species through increased industrial traffic.

In seeking compensation from oil project proponents in such cases, a typical requirement would be to prove cause and effect, "which in many cases is very difficult," he said.

The Comprehensive Study Report for the Hebron project was submitted by the Hebron partners in Sept. 2011 and is available online.

Over approximately 175 pages within its over 1,000-page total, it focuses in specifically on "fish and fish habitat" and "commercial fisheries," touching on everything from water temperatures and prevailing winds to ice movement and a brief history of the local fishing industry, all in looking at potential risks associated with Hebron.

The report separates its discussions into the inshore work area - in Mosquito Cove and Trinity Bay where the Hebron gravity based structure will be developed - and the offshore work area.

Tables break the Hebron project down into its basic development steps, noting wherein habitat quantity, quality, use and fish mortality have the potential to be affected by various types of accidents and unplanned events.

The Hebron partners cover the topic of spill prevention and plans for containment in detail in a separate document, also publicly available.

Even so, "the risk of spills is the one that'll really keep you awake at night," McCurdy said.

In protecting the fishery to the highest possible extent, he recommended greater consultation with fishermen in regards to oil spill preparation on Hebron and other projects already producing oil offshore - suggesting fishermen be tapped for practical training exercises for spill response.

For addressing any scientifically disputed concerns, such as the question of whether or not seismic activity in oil exploration affects fish populations, he recommended funding for specific research for offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, tapping the available knowledge of local fishermen, in resolving the debates.

That will require funding from the Hebron partners, the provincial and federal government, he noted.

Above all, McCurdy said, its time for government to develop a plan for utilizing the rewards from the risks being taken - the immense financial benefits from offshore oil - to strengthen renewable resource industries, like the fishery, in preparation for a post-oil province.

"I'm extremely disappointed that our provincial government hasn't said we've got to have a plan," McCurdy said. "I certainly hope I see it someday."

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Allied Workers, Hebron Public Review, Delta hotel

Geographic location: Hebron, St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador Louisiana Gulf of Mexico Mosquito Cove Trinity Bay

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