Georges Bank is an important fishing area located between Cape Cod and Sable Island. Under the jurisdiction of both Canada and the United States, Georges Bank is a productive spawning area for fish, shellfish, marine animals and seabirds.
Unama’ki’s five Mi’kmaq bands have commercial access to Georges Bank and fishes or have licenses for groundfish, tuna, swordfish and scallops in the areas that could be negatively affected if an oil spill occurs. Profits from fishing are returned to each community to fund infrastructure, housing, education, public works, social assistance, community services, health services, community recreation, youth and Elder outreach, suicide prevention, addiction support, counselling, policing and job creation.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, oil companies drilled ten exploratory wells in Georges Bank that yielded no oil. Soon after, Canada and the United States signed a moratorium on oil exploration and production to ensure fisheries conservation. That moratorium is set to expire at the end of 2012. Now oil companies want to do more seismic testing or drill more exploratory wells to search for reserves that may be deeper.
Hubert Nicholas, Commercial Fisheries Coordinator with Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR) explains, “Offshore oil exploration could jeopardize the financial benefits that Mi’kmaq communities enjoy from the fishery. We have begun to make changes in our communities to make the lives of our community members better. We are concerned that if something were to go wrong with offshore gas exploration, it would affect the species that live there as well as in the Bay of Fundy and Eastern Nova Scotia. While oil companies claim that they are safe, oil spills continue to occur and have a devastating effect on the environment.”
Lisa Young, Executive Director at UINR, feels that the importance of the species and the environment should not be overlooked. “As Mi’kmaq we have an inherent right to access and use our resources and a responsibility to use them in a sustainable way. The Mi’kmaq way of resource management includes a spiritual element that ties together people, plants, animals, and the environment. We have been responsible stewards of the environment for thousands of years and we never under-estimate the inherent importance of every species.”
UINR is an active member in NORIGS3, a coalition of aboriginal groups, fishermen, processors and environmentalists that are working to extend the moratorium and protect the fisheries and the environment. NORIGS3 is working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada as it develops a “State of the Knowledge Report,” summarizing new information that has come to light since the moratorium was established. NORIGS3 is particularly concerned that issues from First Nation’s communities are not being adequately addressed in the report. UINR feels that the potential benefits from oil explorations are small in comparison to the the importance of the fisheries in Atlantic Canada and the United States.
NORIGS3 is encouraging federal and provincial Ministers of fisheries, environment and energy to use the 1999 panel report that set the groundwork for the moratorium as a starting point to decide if the risks and recommendations outlined in the report should be re-examined, or whether the moratorium should be extended for another ten-year period. If the Ministers decide there have been significant changes, they should initiate another impartial review panel that would be responsible for collecting relevant scientific information, coordinating further research and holding consultation sessions to gain public input before producing further recommendations on the moratorium beyond 2012.
Hubert concludes, “The fisheries in Georges Bank are important to the people of Unama’ki and our concern extends to the environmental consequences that oil exploration and production could have on the area. We feel that the benefits we now enjoy from the fisheries and the importance of the area to the species that live there greatly outweigh any perceived benefit that drilling for oil would have.”