Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

A Crossroads at Sea

This summer we mark two very different anniversaries. Thirty years ago, New Englanders faced oil drilling on the iconic Georges Bank. Several active test wells were being drilled, and oil companies were gearing up for full-scale drilling operations in New England’s ocean. At that time, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association challenged those drilling plans using the basic argument that fishing and other sustainable long-term ocean uses would create more jobs and economic revenue than would short-term oil drilling – and without the risk of a catastrophic oil spill.  Thirty years ago CLF and our allies won that argument and drilling was stopped.

Over those last 30 years millions of visitors have walked along Maine’s rocky coasts, swam the beaches of Cape Cod and enjoyed fresh fish and lobsters.  Fishing, shipping, boat building and boat services and coastal recreation sustainably generate billions of dollars of revenue for our region every year.  In 1997, ocean-related tourism and recreation was worth $5.6 billion in Rhode Island alone. In 2006 and 2007, New England fishing vessels brought in $953 million and $875 million in catch, respectively. It is clear that a healthy ocean is an economic treasure that serves generations.

A dead fish after an oil spill (Image credit: NOAA)

At the same time, massive drilling went forward in “the other Gulf” and as a result, this summer we are marking another anniversary – the tragic disaster of BP’s Deepwater Horizon which took the lives of 11 men and unleashed one of the greatest environmental disasters in our nation’s history. Communities along the Gulf of Mexico coast still struggle to clean up the damage. Their tourism and fishing economies, and the many workers and communities who depend on them, are still fighting to get back on their feet and the ecosystem of the Gulf is struggling to recover.

You might think that it could never happen here, but think again –  earlier this summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed three bills that would require oil drilling across the country with even less oversight than occurs now. Even the rich waters of the Gulf of Maine would be opened for drilling. Those three bills passed the House of Representatives.

Two members of New England’s congressional delegation, Representatives Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire voted in favor of expanded drilling. When a similar bill came forward in the US Senate it was rejected soundly on a 57-42 vote. Republican Senator Snowe of Maine deserves praise for standing up to the oil industry and doing the right thing for our coasts by rejecting the bill. Unfortunately, Senator Collins of Maine, Senator Ayotte of New Hampshire and Senator Brown of Massachusetts did not follow her lead, all three cast votes in favor of the measure. (Click here to learn more about CLF’s work to hold Senator Brown accountable for that vote).

Arrows show the powerful Gulf of Maine currents that would circulate oil throughout New England's fishing grounds in the event of a spill (Image credit: US Navy)

At best, all of the oil reserves in New England’s ocean are estimated at 3.82 billion barrels of oil—only  enough to last the United States for 6 months. Imagine if a spill were to happen on Georges Bank:  the currents that make the Gulf of Maine such a rich ecosystem would spread that oil up the Maine coast to the Bay of Fundy, and then down past the beaches of Cape Cod to southern New England. This oil would circulate in our waters for 3 whole months, leaving no part of the Gulf of Maine fishing grounds untainted. We cannot sacrifice the strength of our communities, the health of our oceans and the future of our economy for 6 months’ worth of oil.

Imagine a better way. We can build on the lessons of the Massachusetts Ocean Plan, take up the vision given to us by the President’s National Ocean Policy and bring together ocean users from across New England–fishermen and lobstermen, beach goers and sailors, wind developers and marine scientists–and make a plan today for the future of our oceans—an ocean plan that respects these many uses, protects our marine legacy and ensures a sustainable future for our ocean and the communities that depend on it. New England deserves a positive, clean and healthy future and should not be dragged into the past by dirty oil and the politics of drilling. We urge all New England leaders to reject the proposals for drilling and embrace clean energy, better planning and a healthy ocean for all.

Interested in getting involved? Join us at a “Hands Across the Sands” rally on June 25th to speak out against oil drilling and for clean, renewable energy (click here to find an event at beach near you). You can also attend the National Ocean Council’s listening session on the proposed National Ocean Policy in Exeter, NH on Monday, June 27th. Click here to RSVP via facebook, or contact me directly at wvaughan@clf.org.


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