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“There is no precedent for what BP wants to do here.” Fisherman Colin Sproul on offshore oil exploration

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Offshore exploration for oil brings revenues to governments, but scares the hell out of environmentalists worried about oil spills and their effects on the ocean’s ecology. Here in Nova Scotia another voice is echoing these concerns. That is the voice of fishers who worry what such a spill would do to their way of life.

Colin Sproul. Photo Twitter

Fifth generation lobster fisherman Colin Sproul, fishing from the Bay of Fundy, is one of those who worry that an oil spill will destroy their livelihood. This week Sproul joined a three-day tour to increase awareness of the risks posed by offshore drilling, lax regulations and little real oversight.

Sproul is a frequent spokesperson for the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, an organization that represents 175 small scale family fishing operations, committed to community-based management of fishery resources and sustainability. The tour is organized by the Council of Canadians and the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia.

The risks that keep Sproul and others awake at night are far from theoretical, as it is expected that BP will start drilling exploratory wells off the coast of Nova Scotia sometime this spring or early summer. And yes, that is the same BP of Deepwater Horizon fame, found to be directly responsible for spilling almost 5 million barrels of oil, causing irreversible damage to the Gulf of Mexico ecology.

We talked with Sproul about the risks of offshore exploration, why we should care about something so (relatively) distant, and how to get Nova Scotians to realize what’s at stake.  

How an oil spill would wipe out the fisheries and the tourism industry, and what that would mean to Nova Scotia

Many Nova Scotians fail to make the connection between a resource-based economy and their pay cheque in Halifax. If people understood that connection they’d be much more concerned about these threats to the fishery.

The fishing industry, unlike so many other industries at this time, is experiencing a renaissance in Nova Scotia. We are extracting more value from it now than we ever did in the past. What’s more, it’s being done in an environmentally responsible fashion and in a sustainable way.

Last year there was $600 million worth of lobster taken out of Nova Scotia waters, and conservative economic multipliers use formulas like 4 to 1. that means $3 billion worth of economic activity from the lobster fishery alone. That represents more than $3,000 for every man, woman and child in the province. You can’t even quantify how important this is to Nova Scotia.

Also, we have a $3 billion annual tourism industry here, and that depends entirely on our coast line. People come to Nova Scotia to see our coastline, they want to see fishermen at work, they come to eat fresh Nova Scotia  seafood.

The two industries are inextricably linked. When you consider the impact of a catastrophic oil spill you’d see what that would mean not just for these industries but for Nova Scotia altogether.

On the risks

There is no precedent for what BP wants to do here. Nobody has ever drilled in waters so deep, in an ocean so rough, and in an area so close to some of the most important spawning grounds on earth. I think that it’s just the height of folly to think about risking these spawning grounds without even having the appropriate safety measures on site that they require in other progressive countries.

Last night (at the Halifax event) I was asked the question by the head of the Maritimes Energy Association, whether these two industries (energy and fisheries) can co-exist together.  I think that is a decision they need to make. At this point I don’t think that we can co-exist with them. It has been proven time and time again in places like Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, several African countries, all these places where fisheries were totally destroyed by irresponsible energy developers.  The real question is, are they willing to take adequate safety precautions so that they can coexist with us? It’s not a question we should have to answer for them.

On the lack of regulation

The job of an oil executive is to generate a return on investment for the shareholder. The problems in the offshore are totally the fault of the federal and provincial government, and their unwillingness to act as a responsible and unbiased regulator.

The fault lies with regulators and their unwillingness or inability to do their jobs in an objective way, and that is what we want from the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board. They need to be above the perception of impropriety or conflict.

But when you look at the makeup of the board, and you look at the qualifications, board members are all oil men and women. Nova Scotians, in order to have faith in the  regulators, need to have their own interests represented on that board. Where is the First Nations representation? Where is the fishing industry? Where are the conservation groups? The answer is, they’re not there.

On the unfairness of it all

Fishermen are being asked to go above and beyond, every day we see new proposals from the federal government to help them accomplish an image of being responsible stewards of the ocean. Things like creating a marine-protected area that will exclude fishermen while allowing oil and gas development.

Another example. We are taking strides to improve the North Atlantic Right Whale recovery. We are up against the wall on this issue and we will be taking steps to ensure that the right whale will survive. At the same time we see that a piece of the right whales’ critical habitat, the Roseway Basin, will be placed in grave danger by irresponsibly under-regulated offshore oil and gas development.

That duplicity makes it really hard for people like me to sell progressive policies to fishermen in Nova Scotia, because they say, why should we take these steps, why  should we spend our own money, why should we give up our fishing grounds, to protect something that the federal government will ultimately allow to be destroyed?

On the uphill battle to raise awareness

This is the challenge for all ocean protection issues. It is out of sight, out of mind. Nova Scotia depends on our offshore resources but the average city dweller has no idea what is occurring in the offshore. That has led to problems in the fishery in the past, which have mostly been rectified, but it can lead to serious problems in other offshore industries.

These days you see the extreme push back from the public on clearcutting in Nova Scotia, while there is not much opposition being voiced to the offshore as of yet. That is because you can drive down the highway and you see the clearcuts and the horrible devastation. But the offshore you can’t see.

At some points Nova Scotians need to connect their prosperity, their social and cultural identity, with the offshore, and when we reach that stage we will reach better protection. That is the main objective of this tour. It is the best thing I can do so people can make that connection.

See also: Coalition fears Trudeau will weaken environmental regulations to benefit Big Oil

Between March 20 and March 22, 2018, the Council of Canadians and the Campaign to Protect Offshore Nova Scotia are holding Town Halls on the risks of offshore drilling in Halifax, Shelburne and Lunenburg.


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