Category Archives: Marine life in the Gulf

With over 2,000 species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, this section could be much larger! Included here is info about various species, including endangered species, and the threats posed by the fossil fuel industry.

Ethan Hawke heading to Nova Scotia for native water ceremony ~ MetroNews

October 25th, 2015

By: Ben Cousins
The Canadian Press
Published on Sun Oct 25 2015

ANTIGONISH, N.S. — Four-time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke will be in northern Nova Scotia Monday to help with the Mi’kmaq community’s water ceremony and support the aboriginal call for a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Hawke, who owns land in the St. George’s Bay area near Antigonish, was contacted by the local Mi’kmaq community to attend the event in support of his neighbours.

“We trying to show the world that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is not available for oil exploration,” said Troy Jerome, executive director of the Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat. “It’s a race to get oil as opposed to a race protect the environment.”

“When you look at the state of the environment and climate change, I think we should be racing to protect the land where we can.”

The water ceremony is held in each season to give offerings and honour the Mi’kmaq people’s relationship with the water, the fish, the land.

For two years now, the group has been saying there should be a 12-year moratorium to give time to conduct a proper study by a third-party that looks at the Gulf as a whole ecosystem.

Jerome says up until now, studies have only been done by individual provinces.

“The oil is not going to know which side of the border to stop its spill at,” he said. “It’s going to go all over the place.”

“Our salmon do not follow a provincial boundary, they go right through the channel.”

Jerome says officials told him when you combine the provincial studies together, they achieve a comprehensive study for the area.

“For us, that flies in the face of good science.”

The Gulf of St. Lawrence is one of the largest marine breeding regions in Canada with more than 2,000 marine species choosing to spawn, nurse and migrate there year round.

It is also home to endangered whales and hosts some of the largest lobster production in the world.

The Mi’kmaq say the area is a sensitive ecosystem due to its winter ice cover, high winds and counter clockwise currents that only flush into the Atlantic once a year.

Jerome says Atlantic petroleum boards are operating at pace where Nova Scotians don’t feel they have a say about oil drilling.

He says the tourism and fishing industries in the area are obviously concerned, but outside of that, not a whole lot of people really know about what’s going on.

“We want to get people in the Atlantic to become more aware that these kinds of drilling programs are proposed in their water.”

The venue for the water ceremony in Antigonish is also of historical significance.

The site was the location for the events that led to the Marshall Decision.

In 1993, Donald Marshall Jr., a member of the Membertou First Nation, was stopped for fishing in Antigonish County, N.S., for fishing eels without a license.

He claimed he was allowed to catch and sell fish by virtue of a treaty signed with the British Crown.

Six years later, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed Donald Marshall Jr. had a treaty right to catch and sell fish, thus changing the way First Nations people could hunt and catch in Canada.


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Ethan Hawke, Mi’kmaq to oppose oil, gas exploration in Gulf of St. Lawrence ~ Chronicle Herald

October 22nd, 2015

TOM AYERS Cape Breton Bureau
Published October 22, 2015 – 11:28am

Oscar-nominated actor, writer and director Ethan Hawke is expected to attend a Mi’kmaq water ceremony on Monday at Paq’tnkek First Nation to support an aboriginal call for a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“Ethan Hawke has some land in that area down there,” said Troy Jerome, executive director of the Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat.

“That’s why we were able to convince him to come out and do something with us, because he knows the area right there and he knows about the issue with the Gulf.”

Paq’tnkek Chief Paul (PJ) Prosper will host the secretariat — a group representing three First Nation communities along the Gaspe peninsula — along with Nova Scotia supporters and Innu and Maliseet from around the Gulf, at the ceremony at 1 p.m. on Summerside Road in Afton, Antigonish County.

That is near the site where the late Donald Marshall Jr. was arrested for eel fishing, an affair that ended with a Supreme Court decision in his name that confirmed the aboriginal right to fish.

This week, Shell Canada received approval to begin exploratory drilling off the southwest shore of Nova Scotia, while Corridor Resources, a Halifax junior exploration company, still has an interest in oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Aboriginals aren’t opposed to all petroleum exploration and drilling, said Jerome, but the waters of the Gulf need to be protected to ensure the aboriginal right to fish is not harmed.

Also, the entire region’s economy depends on fishing and tourism, which would be threatened by oil and gas development, he said.

“The Gulf is a very unique ecosystem, as opposed to other bodies of water, so I think there’s a hook there to say that (exploration) could happen in other areas, but in the Gulf, if there is some kind of accident out there, it’s going to devastate the whole economy, right from Halifax all the way to Gaspe and Newfoundland.”

The secretariat is backing a call made last year by Mi’kmaq chiefs and others for a 12-year moratorium on exploration in the Gulf and asking government regulators to commission an independent study of the entire Gulf region, instead of requiring companies to conduct limited studies within a smaller radius from potential exploration sites.

It is also hoping to raise awareness of the issues in the Gulf, where the counterclockwise current could carry pollutants around the shores of the four Atlantic provinces and Quebec, said Jerome, and sea ice in winter could make any cleanup difficult.

And at least three provincial regulatory bodies cover oil and gas development in the Gulf.

“We see this whole Gulf exploration happening under a shroud,” said Jerome. “They’re doing it in public, but the public doesn’t know that they could have a say about what’s happening.

“No one’s drilling right now, and we’re trying to make sure that no drilling occurs. The Mi’kmaq proposed a 12-year moratorium and people came back and said, ‘Why a 12-year moratorium?’

“For us, it’s quite clear that the Gulf is one large ecosystem, and you cannot study it by going to the Newfoundland portion and studying that, going to Quebec and studying that portion, and studying the Nova Scotia portion.”

Source: Chronicle Herald

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Right whales off Cape Breton going the wrong way for shipping, fishing

October 4th, 2015
Published September 22, 2015 – 7:47pm
Last Updated September 22, 2015 – 7:58pm
Cape Breton residents are seeing more right whales offshore as the ocean mammals search for food. The top and sides of whales’ heads have raised patches of skin that are black and called callosities. These are the identifying features for distinguishing individual right whales, shown here as they surface off Cape Breton. (MOIRA BROWN / Canadian Whale Institute)

Whales leaving traditional feeding grounds for Gulf of St. Lawrence: oceanographer
Cape Breton residents are seeing more right whales offshore as the ocean mammals search for food. The top and sides of whales’ heads have raised patches of skin that are black and called callosities. These are the identifying features for distinguishing individual right whales, shown here as they surface off Cape Breton. (MOIRA BROWN / Canadian Whale Institute)

Researchers say endangered right whales may be going the wrong way when it comes to shipping lanes and fishing grounds around Cape Breton and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Kim Davies, an oceanographer at Dalhousie University, said that right whales have significantly changed their migration patterns over the last few years.

The endangered marine mammals are leaving their traditional feeding grounds off southern Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy and are increasingly making their way into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to chase food.

“Because these changes in the right whale distribution have been occurring over several years — I think 2011 was the first year they really started disappearing — we’re growing more and more concerned,” said Davies.

Right whales are typically in the region from June to October, chasing large, high-energy zoo-plankton that arrive every summer along with cold Arctic water, she said, and that food source has been largely absent lately from the Roseway Basin off Barrington and from the Bay of Fundy.

It’s not yet clear whether the plankton change is due to global warming or melting Arctic sea ice, Davies said, “but it is climate related.”

Government and industry have worked together to change seasonal shipping and fishing regulations off the South Shore and in the Fundy region to protect right whales, but that work has not been done in the open ocean or the Gulf, she said.

“That is the No. 1 concern,” said Davies.

“We have very good information on shipping, about where vessels are and where fishing takes place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and across the Scotian Shelf, but we have practically no information about right whales and their migration, outside of their well-known habitats.”

This year, researchers from several organizations kicked a monitoring program into high gear, said Davies. She started surveying off Nova Scotia using underwater drones that listened for whales near offshore oil and gas fields, and some aerial surveys were conducted in the Gulf.

Scientists were surprised to find 35 to 40 right whales near Prince Edward Island and the Gaspe Peninsula, she said.

“They’re popping up in odd places everywhere,” said Davies.

“We heard them out at the shelf break last week, 200 kilometres offshore, which is very concerning because of the oil and gas seismic exploration that’s going to occur there.”

Davies said using underwater drones to listen for right whales, a system can be developed to alert shipping and fishing vessels in the area, but that work is just starting.

Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute, said the right whale population has been growing again over the last few years, with more than 500 individuals identified in the area, but more effort is needed to monitor the population’s shifting migration patterns.

They are being spotted regularly by whale watching tours off Cape Breton and by others in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and are also appearing off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, she said.

“In fact, there have been more sightings (this year) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence than there have been in their two critical habitats in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin,” she said.

The whales have always travelled to the Gulf, said Brown, but not in great numbers.

“There’s no doubt that we are very data poor on that end. It’s certainly time to get up there and do more surveys.”

Davies said two right whales were entangled this summer in fishing gear off Ingonish, and both were released. One was rescued by a group from Newfoundland after a buoy rope became wrapped around its tail. In the other instance, a right whale was penned inside a mackerel net.

The Whale Release and Strandings Group, based in St. Philip’s, N.L., was sent to Cape Breton in July to look for an entangled humpback when it came across one of the right whales, said Julie Huntington, education co-ordinator with the group.

“It’s great that we were there and able to respond,” she said.

Brown and Davies said that with the changing migration patterns, it wouldn’t be surprising if Fisheries and Oceans Canada was concerned about right whales getting tangled in fishing gear.

No one from the department was available for comment Tuesday.


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Quebec First Nations take legal action against Belledune oil terminal ~ CBC News

July 8th, 2015

Ask New Brunswick court to quash construction permit issued to Chaleur Terminals Inc., cite failure to consult
CBC News
Jul 07, 2015

Mi’gmaq communities in the Gaspé region have take legal action against the New Brunswick government and Chaleur Terminals Inc., in a bid to halt construction of an oil terminal in Belledune, N.B.

Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation and the Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat filed a notice of application with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Campbellton, N.B., on Monday.

They are seeking to quash the approval to construct permit, environmental approval permit and site approval issued to Chaleur Terminals by the New Brunswick Department of Environment earlier this year.

The band and not-for-profit corporation allege the provincial government has breached its “ongoing duty to consult and to seek to reach a reasonable accommodation with the applicants,” according to the court documents.

They want the court to issue an order prohibiting the government from issuing any further permits, approvals or authorizations to Chaleur Terminals “until such time as the province of New Brunswick has fulfilled its obligations to the applicants.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The New Brunswick government and Chaleur Terminals have not yet filed responses with the court.

Sacred duty to protect salmon

Troy Jerome, executive director of the Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat, contends the proposed project is in violation of aboriginal title, rights and treaties.

He says his people have a sacred duty to protect the salmon in the Matapedia and Restigouche rivers, along which the oil would be carried in rail cars.

​”Our people here fish salmon. If you look out on the river today, they’re out there fishing salmon. It’s our way of life. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and we went and [did] what we had to do to defend our way of life in terms of protecting the salmon,” he said.

‘If there’s even one rail tank that spills into that river, it’s a lot more important to us than those 40 jobs.’- Troy Jerome, Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat

“We are one with the salmon. So the salmon [are] looking to us to protect them, and they provide us nourishment, so we have that kind of relationship, that direct relationship. And Chaleur Terminals right now, they’re talking about a couple of jobs, even up to 40 jobs — if there’s even one rail tank that spills into that river, it’s a lot more important to us than those 40 jobs.”

220 rail cars of Alberta oil daily

Chaleur Terminals, a subsidiary of Alberta-based Secure Energy Services, purchased 250 acres from the Port of Belledune last year. It plans to transport Alberta crude oil to Belledune by rail, for marine export abroad.

Construction is expected to start at the end of 2015 or 2016 and take about 18 months. Once complete, the project would see about 220 rail cars carrying oil to Belledune every day.

Jerome says people in the Gaspé area don’t have much faith in CN Railway after upgrades earlier this year caused irreversible damage to the local salmon population, according to anglers.

And he says efforts to discuss the project with the provincial and federal governments have so far not resulted in proper engagement.

In April, CN Railway dumped 6,000 tonnes of rocks on the side of its tracks to prevent erosion — and right into an important salmon breeding ground in the Matapedia River, causing irreversible damage, according to Quebec’s Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) officials have said the rail company didn’t respect its maintenance work permit when it dumped the rocks during an important time in the Atlantic salmon breeding cycle.

A total of 22 municipalities in Quebec have voiced opposition to Chaleur Terminals’ project in Belledune.

Local politicians in New Brunswick, however, have said they welcome the estimated 200 jobs it will create during construction and 40 permanent full-time jobs once it’s in operation.


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St. Lawrence River: 334 spills in 10 years

April 22nd, 2015
A boat near Trois-Rivières, Que., leaked at least 10,000 litres into the St. Lawrence River in December 2014. (Credit: Radio-Canada)

A boat near Trois-Rivières, Que., leaked at least 10,000 litres into the St. Lawrence River in December 2014. (Credit: Radio-Canada)

St.Lawrence River: 334 spills in 10 years
CBC News Posted: Jan 19, 2015 7:32 AM ET

There were 334 spills involving ships in the St. Lawrence River between February 2002 and November 2012, according to federal documents obtained by Radio-Canada.

The documents also show the limits of the system used by the federal and provincial governments to track the extent of spills and their potential environmental impacts.

Most of the cases involved diesel, but the documents indicate fuel oil, heavy oil and lubricating oil also leaked into the river.

The amounts varied:

– Half of the spills were for an amount less than 10 litres.
– One-quarter were for between 10 and 50,000 litres.
– One-quarter were of an “unknown quantity.”

A ship near Trois-Rivières, for example, leaked an unknown amount of diesel into the water in December 2014.

Neither the provincial nor federal governments could say how much of the 22,000 litres of diesel on the ship went into the water.

Michel Plamondon, a spokesman for the Canadian Coast Guard, said “10,000 litres of pure hydrocarbons were recovered,” but said it’s impossible to know how much additional oil leaked into the water.

That’s a major problem according to Steven Guilbeault, the co-founder and senior director of the environmental group Équiterre.

co-founder and senior director of the environmental group Équiterre.

Steven Guilbeault, co-founder and senior director of Équiterre. (Credit: Équiterre)

“We have no information, so is it tens of thousands of litres that end up in the Saint Lawrence River and all of a sudden we’re wondering why beluga whales are doing so bad and the species is declining? We should know. We should have better information,” Guilbeault said, adding that much of the onus falls on the companies to report the extent of spills.

The numbers detailed in the documents don’t include spills stemming from a source other than a ship, such as the generator leak at the water filtration plant in Longueuil.

Transport Canada said it could not comment on the numbers Radio-Canada obtained, but a spokeswoman told CBC News that reporting spills is a complex process. She said there are many factors that can influence how a spill is reported — such as where the ship is located when it begins to leak — which in turn can affect which government body is responsible for the cleanup.

Excerpted from

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Interprovincial Panel Explores Impacts of Fossil Fuel Development in Newfoundland

February 15th, 2015

On Sunday, February 1st, 2015, a public forum and panel discussion was held in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University. Forum Photo Irene with CaptionThe panel included Irene Novaczek, adjunct professor of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island; Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Conne River Mi’kmaq Tribal Nation; and economist Michael Bradfield, a member of Nova Scotia’s review panel for hydraulic fracturing..
The forum and panel presentations made the connections between the issue of Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking in Newfoundland and Labrador and broader regional concerns related to oil development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The meeting was well attended, as well as informative, with many community members sharing viewpoints in a lively public forum on the health and welfare of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, oil development and fracking.

The forum was organized and hosted by representatives of the Social Justice Co-operative and Newfoundland and Labrador representatives of the  Save our Seas and Shores  organization  as well as other supportive individuals in the community.

For further coverage on the public forum, The Western Star and The Telegram have published excellent articles on the event. Bob Diamond’s Letter to the Editor of the Western Star offers a wonderful summary of the afternoon panel and discussion. The public forum is available to view in its entirety here.

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St. Lawrence Coalition Releases Gulf 101 Report

June 12th, 2014
Credit: Andrea Schaffer via Flickr
Credit: Andrea Schaffer via Flickr

After four years of research by the St. Lawrence Coalition, Gulf 101 – Oil in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: Facts, Myths, and Future Outlook was released last week (June 10th 2014) in tandem with World Oceans Week. The report explores the facts and myths surrounding oil exploration and exploitation in the Gulf as well as possible future scenarios that may result from these activities.

The 80-page report highlights our lack of understanding towards the ecosystems within the Gulf as well as the oceans currents and other environmental components found there. The environment of the Gulf is subject to conditions that are not seen in other areas of oil development such as winter ice that would make cleaning up an oil spill almost impossible, threatening the destruction of the slowly recovering cod stocks as well as the currently thriving fisheries and tourism industries that so many communities depend on.

The report provides true insight for why Save Our Seas and Shores and the St. Lawrence Coalition asks you to lend your support to a moratorium on oil and gas in the Gulf. Go here to take action!

The Gulf 101 Report generated massive media attention in all five Gulf provinces. Here is a selection:


The Telegram:

Nova Scotia

Chronicle Herald:

CBC Nova Scotia:

Prince Edward Island:

The Guardian:


CBC News Montreal (online): (June 9)

Go hear to read the Press Release on the report from the David Suzuki Foundation:




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Widespread collapse of scallop fishery reported in Port au Port Bay, Newfoundland

February 7th, 2014

Port au Port Bay Fishery Committee


February 7, 2014

Fishery Committee Concerned about Collapse of the Scallop Fishery and Threats to the Marine Ecosystem in Port au Port Bay

The Port au Port Bay Fishery Committee is intending to act on their concerns about the collapse of the Scallop Fishery and threats to the local Marine Ecosystem,

The Committee which met Monday evening, February 3, 2014 in Port au Port East has created subcommittees and an action plan to deal with their concerns.

Scallop fishermen in the Port au Port Bay Region reported that they have never experienced such a widespread collapse of the scallop fishery in the local bay. Laboratory test results on scallops submitted to the Federal Department of Fisheries last November have been inconclusive as to the cause of the collapse. The committee was also disappointed that the scallops were not tested for petroleum contaminants. The fishermen also report that  sea urchins have gone and there is a big decline in  rock crab.

Local fishermen believe that environmental pollutants, possibly from oil/industrial developments in the area, may be contributing to the drastic decline in scallops. Fishery Committee member Captain Gus Hynes says that he and his crew are quite concerned that developments have been occurring around Port au Port Bay without due regard to their impact on scallops and other marine species.

Fishery Committee members believe that past government environmental assessments done under the jurisdiction of the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board are not adequately protecting fishery interests and the marine environment. The 2007 Environmental Assessment for the Port au Port Bay Exploration Drilling Program at Shoal Point makes no mention of the potential high risk and vulnerability of the site to tidal surges, coastal erosion and other impacts from extreme weather related to climate change. The risks associated with rapid rate of coastal erosion caused by extreme weather and tidal surges in the area are self evident such as the recent wash- outs of sections of the Piccadilly Main Road; Fox Island Road, and the main roadway to the Shoal Point drilling site.

Bill O’Gorman, scallop diver and Fishery Committee spokesperson, says the name of the area “Shoal” Point should have set off enough bells and red lights to warrant at least some reference in the 2007 Environmental Assessment to the risk involved with drilling at such a vulnerable site. ‘The alarming fact is that drilling was approved on an exposed shoal at the tip of a point jutting out some eight kilometres towards the centre of Port au Port Bay.” Mr. O’ Gorman believes that the environmental and health risks of oil drilling on a shoal are more serious today due to  increasing extreme weather, rising ocean levels and tidal surges – all related to climate change

Boswarlos resident, Andrew Harvey,  a fisherman for thirty-seven years, has been recording storms and other weather conditions in the Port au Port Bay area.  He has noticed the increasing frequency of storms and the intensity of the storm surges.  Andrew speculates, based on the rate of coastal erosion at Shoal Point that the latest  drill site at  the end of the point will be ” pretty well washed away within the next five to ten years”

Other problems at Shoal Point that concerns the Fishery Committee are pollution issues and lack of remediation and environmental restoration at abandoned drilling sites at Shoal Point. “There was no mention in the 2007 Environmental Assessment of past oil drilling sites that were once on land and are now off shore with oil from derelict pipes polluting the coastal environment.” Many area residents and tourists such as Bill Duffenais and Karen Smith, who have a cabin and shed threatened by coastal erosion at Shoal Point, have reported the presence of drilling pipes jutting vertically out of the water off Shoal Point. Troy Duffy, local Environmental Protection Officer and members of the Fishery Committee have   verified and documented the existence of these pipes, oil slicks and smell of petroleum in the area. Larry Hicks, a Provincial Department of Resources geologist, has indicated that there may be as many as fifteen abandoned drilling sites in the Shoal Point area which are in various states of deterioration.

There were also no public consultation meetings or forums conducted as part of the  original 2007 Environmental Assessment Process which ended with the approval of the last drilling project at Shoal Pont. The Fishery Committee believes that this environmental process facilitated by the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (C -NLOPB0) was invalid, undemocratic and failed the residents of the region. The C-NLOPB were in conflict of interest by being responsible for facilitating oil and gas development and also being responsible for worker safety and environmental protection. The Fishery Committee supports Judge Robert Wells main recommendation in his Report on Offshore Safety that the Federal and Provincial Governments should create a Safety and Environmental Protection Agency separate from the C-NLOPB.

Related to the 2007 Assessment was the 2010 request from Shoal Pont Energy to amend the 2007 Environmental Assessment to allow Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking). Fracking possibly would have been approved at this site if it were not for the intervention of the regional Fracking Awareness Groups and others.

With reference to the Provincial Government’s Turn Back The Tide Climate Change Initiative the Fishery Committee is calling upon the Provincial Government to do a study and assessment of climate change impacts on Shoal Point and other sensitive areas such as the coastal road near Fox Island River.

The Fishery Committee is requesting that the Provincial and Federal Governments should say no to Hydraulic Fracturing at Shoal Point due to well documented, unacceptable risks. As an alternative they should do what they are promoting in the provincial government’s Turn Back The Tide Advertising Campaign – act on climate change by developing new and clean renewable energy – wind, tidal, thermal and solar.

The objectives of the Port au Port Bay Fishery Committee  are:

1.  Determine why the scallops are dying in Port au Port Bay.

2.  Study and monitor the marine ecology of Port au Port Bay

3.  Promote a healthy marine ecosystem

4.  Preserve the species that are dying off

5.  Preserve the fishery as a way of life.



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Gulf of St. Lawrence ~ A Unique Ecosystem

January 27th, 2014

This 32 page report presents the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a unique marine ecosystem that features complex oceanographic processes and also maintains a high biological diversity of marine life. The information provided covers physical systems such as the properties of water, physical oceanography and geological components. The biological aspects include descriptions of macrophytic, planktonic and benthic communities, reptiles, fish, marine birds and mammals. There is also a discussion on the human components such as settlement, industrial activity and governance. By providing relevant information in this format the report highlights the challenge of managing multiple human activities within the context of a dynamic, diverse and unique marine ecosystem. It was produced by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 2005.

Gulf of St. Lawrence A Unique Ecosystem DFO

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Offshore seismic testing puts wildlife at risk, biologist fears ~ Halifax Media Co-op

November 21st, 2013

Are blasting airguns jeopardizing Atlantic Ocean’s ecosystem?

by Robert Devet
Halifax Media Co-op
November 21, 2013

K’JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX – Nova Scotia’s offshore oil and gas production is on the upswing. Natural gas is flowing from the Deep Panuke natural gas field on the Scotian Shelf.

And now there are two new kids on the block. This time it’s oil they are after.

Shell Canada spent the summer mapping the geology of a large area in the Shelburne Basin about 300 kilometers south east of Halifax. Next summer BP Exploration (Canada) will follow suit.

Shell for one is happy with the results of its discovery effort. “The initial indication is that the data we’re seeing looks really good,” Shell spokesperson Larry Lalonde told the Chronicle Herald in early September of this year. “We’re quite excited about what we are seeing.”

But local environmental activists are worried. And the concern is not just about spills like the one we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Concerns emerge even in this early discovery stage when geologists are determining how much oil there really is, and where exactly that oil can be found.

Problem is, that discovery process is a very noisy affair.

Seismic testing involves the use of airguns fired from moving ships. The airguns generate loudblasts below the ocean’s surface approximately every 20 seconds. The nature of the resulting seismic waves allow geologists to map the geological strata below the ocean floor.

Many environmentalists believe that the noise generated by airguns, almost as loud as dynamite explosions, has a profoundly negative effect on fish, sea turtles and whales in the seismic testing area.

Beaked Whales spend 98% of their time below the surface and are unlkely to be spotted by observers on board of the seismic testing vessels, biologist Lindy Weilgart tells the Halifax Media Co-op. Photo: WikiCommons.

Beaked Whales spend 98% of their time below the surface and are unlikely to be spotted by observers on board of the seismic testing vessels, biologist Lindy Weilgart tells the Halifax Media Co-op. Photo: WikiCommons.

Lindy Weilgart, a Dalhousie University research associate in Biology, has studied the effects of seismic testing on marine wildlife since she was a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University.

Biologist Lindy Weilgart believes more can be done to protect marine wildlife from seismic testing off the coast of Nova Scotia. Photo: Dalhousie University

Biologist Lindy Weilgart believes more can be done to protect marine wildlife from seismic testing off the coast of Nova Scotia. Photo: Dalhousie University

“When the airgun is fired you actually see a bubble coming to the surface, air is released under incredibly high pressure, and with a very sharp onset,” says Weilgart. “One shot, and if you don’t have ear protectors on you can go deaf.”

Weilgart is not just worried that sea creatures find themselves too close to the airguns and suffer permanent hearing damage. There are other reasons why seismic testing is particularly hard on ocean dwellers, says Weilgart.

Although under water sound drops off faster, it carries much further than it does on land. The sound of the airguns can be heard as far as 4,000 kilometers away. Combine that with how crucial sound is for fish and sea mammals, and you have a big problem.

“Often it is the quiet signals that are important,” says Weilgart. “For instance, fin whales have to listen for the sounds of potential mates, to meet up. For them it could mean the difference between a mating opportunity or not.”

And not just whales. Weilgart mentions studies that show that fish make very poor decisions about handling their prey when in a noisy environment. Even squid are affected.

The impact of seismic testing on ocean wildlife is complex. Weilgart gives example after example to drive home this point.

“We have to look at it in the way the animal experiences it, we have to be animal-centric,” says Weilgart. And behaviour isn’t always a good indicator of what is really going on.

“Sometimes the most vulnerable and most desperate of the individuals will stay, not because they aren’t bothered by the seismic testing, but because they can’t afford to leave, they don’t have the luxury,” says Weilgart.

Sea creatures are not just facing this one seismic survey, they are dealing with other noise sources as well, says Weilgart. Ships, the bow thrusters of oil platforms, the seismic ships themselves make noise.

Then there is stress caused by overfishing and loss of prey, climate change and warming of the oceans, acidification, the list goes on.

Environmental approval for this summer’s seismic testing by Shell was granted by the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, an independent joint federal-provincial agency that regulates all offshore oil and gas activities.

It’s written approval of this summer’s seismic testing effort states that it is not likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects, especially given the precautionary measures to which Shell has committed.

Those precautionary measures consist of independent monitors who travel on board of the ships and watch for whales and turtles, and sensors that pick up sounds made by whales below the ocean surface. Work stops immediately when there is any sign that such ocean wildlife is present.

Mark Butler, Policy Director at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, does not think that is good enough.

What monitors are able to observe is just the tip of the iceberg, Butler says. Thick fog and big waves can make it very difficult to see a tail flick somewhere in that vast expanse of ocean.

Butler is also not happy that the exploration by Shell was taking place during the summer. He believes that it is better to stop seismic testing during sensitive periods.

“People don’t realize how much life comes into our waters in the spring and summer to feed, it’s like a highway out there,” says Butler.

This is why Butler asked that Shell postpone the seismic testing until later in the year, but Shell refused, arguing that the project was already approved and that bad weather in winter was too much of a risk to the crew.

“If you are striving, as some would perhaps suggest, for no environmental impact than there would be no man-made activities on land or on sea,” says Stuart Pinks, CEO of the Offshore Petroleum Board.

“But the purpose of the environmental assessment is to make sure that there is no significant adverse impact and to minimize any impact that has been identified to the lowest extent possible,” Pinks says.

Minimizing impact may be a matter of degree, but for Weilgart we’re not cautious enough.

“You can’t keep asking the animal to adapt, there is not enough luxury and play in the system,” says Weilgart. “The oceans are not doing well, and now you are throwing this at them.”

“At the very minimum you have to be precautionary.”

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert

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