Nfld. & Labrador

'Perfectly reasonable' to drill for oil in area closed to fishery, Liberal MP says

​St. John’s MP Nick Whalen is standing by a move to open oil exploration bids in a marine refuge that is closed to fishing.
St. John's East MP Nick Whalen has no issues with allowing oil and gas exploration in a ecologically-sensitive area that's closed to fishing. (Jeremy Eaton)

St. John's MP Nick Whalen is standing by a move to open oil exploration bids in a marine refuge that is closed to fishing, even though the move has drawn significant criticism from fish harvesters, scientists and conservation groups.

Last December, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced the closure of what's called the Northeast Newfoundland Slope to bottom contact fishing. The closure was meant to protect sensitive sponges and corals, which are a vital fish habitat.

The map on the left shows the Northeast Newfoundland Slope protected area. The map on the right, created by WWF Canada, shows the same area where bids have been called for potential oil exploration. (DFO, WWF Canada)

A few weeks ago, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Petroleum Board called for oil exploration bids in the same area.

It's perfectly reasonable for those areas to be closed to fishing … but open to oil and gas.- Nick Whalen

Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Fish Food and Allied Workers have expressed their criticism, saying it doesn't make sense to open the area to the oil industry while closing it to fishing.

Whalen told CBC Radio's The Broadcast that the decision doesn't bother him.

"It's perfectly reasonable for those areas to be closed to fishing, to protect the cold-water coral and certain other species of interest, but open to oil and gas," he said in an interview.

Whalen said because this area has valuable oil prospects, it should not count towards Canada's target to designate 10 per cent of its coasts and waters as marine protected areas.

Instead, he said, "it's important for us to find another 0.3 per cent or 0.7 per cent, or whatever it is."

Sponges don't just settle anywhere: scientist

But not every part of the ocean is the same. The reason sponges and corals grow well on the slope is likely because of the favourable conditions of the area itself.

Rodolphe Devillers is a geographer and marine conservationist at Memorial University. He wants to see better protection of marine protected areas. (Memorial University)

Sally Leys, a sea sponge biologist at the University of Alberta, said sponges don't settle just anywhere, but prefer areas where there is enough flow to replenish the water, and not so much that there's turbulence.

Leys said that 10 per cent protection is only the beginning, and protecting important areas should not be delayed.

"You will lose the fauna in that area. Those animals are not going to be in another area."

Rodolphe Devillers, a Memorial University geography professor who focuses on oceans and has been closely involved with the science and policy of marine protected areas, is also worried.

'Like forests are to birds'

Devillers said that although we don't eat corals and sponges, they are a crucial habitat for fish "like forests are to birds." 

Leys added that sponges also filter water, acting as "recyclers of the water column."

Bottom contact fishing completely decimates these animals, which is why it was banned.

Oil exploration has consequences as well.

Sediment stirred up during construction, and fluids seeping from drilling rigs can get into sponge tissues, prevent their filtering, and essentially choke them out.

"There are studies in the North Atlantic that show there's a big area around such drilling spots that doesn't have benthic fauna, and it's probably because of the fluids that move out from the drilling sites," said Leys.

While the number of oil spills has been on the decline over the last 50 years, the consequences of mistakes are great.

"Deepwater Horizon has shown us that even in calm, shallow water it's very, very difficult to contain," said Devillers, who added he is worried about what could happen at greater depths.

He blames this decision on a "lack of communication" between different levels of government.

You will lose the fauna in that area. Those animals are not going to be in another area.- Sally Leys

"The government that created the area for corals and sponges is the federal government, it's DFO, it's national mandate. The government that approved the bids is the provincial government."

Devillers said a solution is practicing better marine spatial planning, which is the urban planning equivalent for marine protected areas.

"[In St. John's] we have a plan, we know where we're allowed to develop, where we're not, what's residential, what's industrial," he said.

"We don't have that in the ocean."