Learn­ing lessons from the whales

The Southern Gazette - - EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT - Edi­tor; Michael Burzyn­ski, Rocky Har­bour

Western New­found­land has been in the news a lot in the last few weeks with sto­ries about the nine blue whales that died in the ice close to Port aux Basques. Two came ashore at Trout River and Rocky Har­bour, and oth­ers were last seen adrift north of Sally’s Cove. These dead whales clearly demon­strate two very im­por­tant facts:

1. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is a species-rich, semi-en­closed sea. Ev­ery­one was sur­prised when sev­eral dozen white-beaked dol­phins, a sperm whale and nine blue whales were killed along the south­west coast by the ice this win­ter.

The mon­u­men­tal size of the deaths hinted at an un­seen rich­ness. But these are just a tiny frac­tion of the liv­ing whales, seals, birds, fish and other hid­den crea­tures that make the Gulf of St. Lawrence their home (see the May is­sue of Na­tional Ge­o­graphic for an in­di­ca­tion of in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in the di­ver­sity of the Gulf).

The Gulf is ex­tremely im­por­tant to ma­rine life, to the fish­ery and to tourism, and it is very dif­fer­ent from Hiber­nia and other open-ocean oil­fields. When an oil spill oc­curs in the Gulf, float­ing crude will cir­cu­late around the shores of New­found­land and Labrador, Que­bec, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Nova Sco­tia, smoth­er­ing in­stead of dis­pers­ing.

2. What hap­pens in the Gulf stays in the Gulf. The blue whales died some­where off Cape An­guille, in the vicin­ity of the Old Harry ge­o­log­i­cal struc­ture. This is an area of great in­ter­est to ex­plo­ration com­pa­nies for its oil and gas po­ten­tial. The car­casses were cap­tured by the cur­rent and floated north­ward along the coast of the Port au Port Penin­sula, past the Bay of Is­lands, and to Bonne Bay, where two grounded and oth­ers con­tin­ued to drift in the di­rec­tion of the Strait of Belle Isle.

This shows us clearly what would hap­pen if there were to be an oil spill in the Old Harry area. The oil would be car­ried by the north­ward cur­rent, just like the dead whales were, coat­ing the west coast in crude - in­clud­ing the beaches of this prov­ince’s tourism icon, Gros Morne Na­tional Park (watch the fas­ci­nat­ing an­i­ma­tion of oil spill sce­nar­ios in the Gulf at ‘ http://iop­science.iop.org/17489326/9/5/054001/ar­ti­cle’).

Gov­ern­ments are cur­rently con­sid­er­ing oil ex­plo­ration through­out the Gulf. Our overuse of hy­dro­car­bon fu­els has al­ready tipped this planet into dan­ger­ous cli­matic change.

Oil ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion are al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by spills and leaks. Seis­mic map­ping dam­ages ma­rine or­gan­isms. Ship­ping and pipe­line con­struc­tion bring their own haz­ards. There are other sources of oil and other sources of en­ergy. Is it re­ally nec­es­sary to sac­ri­fice the Gulf as well?

The Gulf of St. Lawrence oil in­dus­try be­gan when the Basques ar­rived at Red Bay to har­vest whale oil in the 1500s. This spring’s drift­ing blue whales have shown us that it should end now with a ban on hy­dro­car­bon ex­trac­tion in the pre­cious and vul­ner­a­ble ecosys­tem of the Gulf.

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