Oil, Fish, and Georges Bank

The questions on Georges are: Is there oil here? And if so, what will it do to the fish?

FOR MORE THAN 350 years, men have been going to Georges Bank, 150 miles out on the continental shelf east of Cape Cod, to fish for cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder, scallops, lobsters. They have decimated stocks more than once, but the fisheries are still there.

Back in the early seventies, when catches were unsustainably high, the harvest was, acre-foracre, the largest in the world.

Now other men are heading out to Georges to hunt—through holes inches wide and miles deep-for oil and gas. There won't be many men at first, perhaps a few hundred aboard a handful of exploratory rigs. But that is enough to signal the fact that along the great submerged thumb stretching from Nantucket Shoals toward Nova Scotia, competition for resources has begun in earnest.

The conflict involves two resources in one place, both of importance to the modern world. Oil from Georges would reduce our dependence on foreign supplies, if only slightly. Fish—a resource capable of providing half our minimum protein needs—are a vital supplement to our agricultural yields. Learning how to protect the stocks on Georges from pollution and overfishing will benefit the resource everywhere within our 200-mile-wide fisheriesconservation zone.

Georges Bank covers about 10,000 square miles, if one limits the area to the 100-meter isobath. Its southeastern, or seaward, side is cut by canyons eroded when the sea was much lower; 15,000 years ago, so much water was locked up in glaciers that a lot of Georges was dry land. As the ice melted and the ocean rolled back, Georges became a high-energy patch of sea, never idle. Tidal currents flow around the shoals, mixing the sea, rolling the bottom into sand waves. Nutrient-rich water from the ocean and the Gulf of Maine wells up onto the bulge of the bank. Under certain conditions, a gyre apparently forms in the upper eighty meters or so—a current with a clockwise rotation which acts like a corral for feeders and food. Warm-core eddies spinning off the nearby Gulf Stream visit occasionally along the seaward edge. They make off with quantities of planktonic organisms, many of which never return.

Nutrients and currents have combined to make Georges a place to fish. In 1979, the last year for which detailed figures are available at this writing, the catch from Georges Bank totaled some 234,000 metric tons, worth more than $122 million—say, 8 percent of this country's total landings, a good deal more if one considers only food fish. American fishermen accounted for 60 percent of the haul, with Canadian fishermen strongly represented in the remainder. All told, the New England fishing industry, from net to skillet, contributes perhaps a billion dollars to the regional economy.

It wasn't until after World War II that drillers followed oil out to sea, working from barges. Now there are about 3,200 producing oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico, a few of them in waters 1,000 feet deep. There are wells off California and Alaska and around the world's continental shelves—in the North Sea, in the Indian Ocean. Together, they account for about one fifth of global oil production.

Most exploration drilling is done from mobile rigs—hulls with a derrick amidships; jack-ups that ratchet their legs down into the bottom and push the drilling deck up in the air above stormwave height; and semi-submersibles, vessels that flood their pontoons so that they ride deep and stably. Down from these rigs to the wellhead on the sea floor run riser pipes—thick tubes containing the drill string and all that goes with it. These are huge structures. The semisubmersibles are much in demand for heavy weather like that around Georges, where winter winds spasm every ten days or so and where five-foot seas in the cold seasons are a blessed relief. The semis have decks that can run to more than an acre and pontoons longer than soccer fields.

Interest in what the oil people call the Atlantic frontier (a region virgin to the wildcatter's drill) arose in the sixties, when a few companies began shooting seismic lines, bouncing shock waves off layers of rock under the sea floor to read the formations. Things looked promising enough so that eventually a lease sale was held for an area out on the Baltimore Canyon. In three years of drilling, some gas and a little oil have been found, but not enough at this point to warrant production. The Hibernia find off Newfoundland and some gas strikes further south, off Nova Scotia, have raised hopes again, however.

Georges Bank lies between the Canadian wells and the Baltimore Canyon. Beneath it is a thick wedge of sedimentary rock that formed when North America pulled away from West Africa 190 million years ago. Part of the wedge is made up of ancient reefs that impounded sediments swept from the continent. The troughs behind the reefs filled to overflowing with layers of sand, mud, and organic material. Some of that organic material is now four miles down. It may have had a chance to cook at a couple of hundred degrees Fahrenheit under the right conditions to produce oil or, more likely, gas.

The North Atlantic region, or Georges Bank, ranks sixth in estimated undiscovered recoverable resources for offshore areas studied by the United States Geological Survey. Its mean estimates, indicating amounts most likely to occur, are .4 billion barrels of oil and 2.5 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's not much—only about half of what is predicted for the Baltimore Canyon area, and about 1.4 percent of total offshore oil estimates and less than 1.5 percent of estimated offshore gas. There may be nothing there at all that is commercially producible. The only way to find out is to drill and keep drilling, probably for years, until Georges is either developed or abandoned.

It didn't take long for opposition to oil operations on Georges to heat up. Fishermen worried about pollution, crowded ports, cluttered fishing grounds. Environmental groups such as Boston's Conservation Law Foundation fought for adequate safeguards to protect fisheries and helped prod the Carter Administration into establishing an interagency biological task force charged with developing a program to monitor the effects of drilling and production on the biota of the bank. James Watt, Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior, has elected to fund the program. But monitoring carries the implication of increased regulation, and that is simply not popular now along the Potomac, nor does it fit in with Watt's plan to accelerate offshore leasing.

Oil is one of the most complex substances known to science, and its effects on the marine environment are labyrinthine. Some of its thousands of components have been shown to be lethal; many are toxic. John Farrington, a marine geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has been studying petroleum hydrocarbons in the ocean for more than a decade. In testimony before a congressional committee, Farrington complained about the uneven quality of research in his field. "If you are an environmentalist intent on painting a picture of bleak doom such as 'the oceans are dying,' you can find a literature reference to add support to your claim. If you are an industry spokesman intent on minimizing the effects of oil in the marine environment, you can also find a literature reference to support your claim."

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