Oil, Fish, and Georges Bank

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

By William H. MacLeish

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."

The oil people insist they aren't trying to minimize anything. "We haven't hurt the fishing industry in other areas," says a Mobil executive. "Why, then, are we trying to hurt it on Georges Bank?" The peripatetic panels the American Petroleum Institute sends around, most recently to the fishing towns near Georges, work that theme hard. They admit that under cer

tain conditions oil will kill marine organisms. But they say that fish and oil have coexisted for decades in the Gulf, and they have statistics showing that in the North Sea and other spots on the continental shelves of the world catch tonnages have shown little if any drop after oil production has begun. They cite reports from the National Academy of Science indicating that in any case offshore oil activities contribute only one percent of the petroleum hydrocarbons entering the world oceans. (By far the greatest pollution is caused by river runoff and atmospheric fallout.)

Studies of inshore areas have shown long-term benthic effects of oil. Amphipods and other types of small "bugs" teeming in the estuaries and marsh muds near the Cape Cod town of Falmouth were ravaged by fuel oil spilled from a barge in 1969. Howard Sanders, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and his colleagues studied the damage and reported that the complex multispecies ecosystem of the bottom became one in which large numbers of a few opportunistic species predominated. Sanders and some oil-company scientists feuded bitterly over his findings, but what Sanders was talking about had little to do with predicting what might happen if there were an oil spill near a place like Georges.

In 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant, miles off course, piled up on Nantucket Shoals, dumped a full cargo of crude into the winter sea—and nothing much appeared to happen. Winds off the land pushed pancakes of the stuff out into the Gulf Stream and on toward the British Isles. In the general scoffing at environmentalists, little public attention was paid to the fact that a small amount of oil did sink to the bottom and was adsorbed on sediment particles or in fecal pellets of plankton and other near-surface organisms, and some local damage was done. More important, oil from the slick stuck to floating fish eggs and larvae, killing 20 percent of the cod eggs and 46 percent of the pollock eggs it touched. Had the Argo Merchant gone aground during the heavy spawnings of spring and summer, and had the winds been different, there might not have been snickers and sighs of relief.

The spill from the Amoco Cadiz, the largest spill to date, was a different story. Eric Schneider, formerly of the Environmental Protection Agency and now with the University of Rhode Island's Center for Ocean Management Studies, looked at the effects of the 1.6 million barrels of crude oil spread along hundreds of square kilometers of the English Channel off the French coast in the spring of 1978. Working with the French and funded in part by the U.S. oil industry, Schneider found that not only were populations of amphipods and other small benthic creatures severely damaged but groundfish also suffered, if only because most feed on bottom bugs. "That surprised the oil companies," Schneider says. "I told them there was a year class of flounder missing off that coast." (A year class comprises fish of a certain species, all born in the same spawning season, which have survived to harvesting size.)

Down in home waters, the oil industry financed a study of petroleum pollution by a group of research centers along the Gulf of Mexico, working together as the Gulf Universities Research Consortium (GURC). The consensus report was released in 1978 and showed, according to an American Petroleum Institute spokesman, that "no measurable effects [of oil] have been observed on such indicators of the health of marine communities as population levels of various organisms, species diversity, and size, growth rate, or reproducibility of various organisms." The spokesman concluded that "lowlevel, chronic exposure to crude oil has, at most, negligible effects on marine life."

That interested Howard Sanders. He went through piles of research findings on which the GURC consensus report was based and, he said, found much that was at odds with its conclusions. Specifically, several GURC investigators had been unhappy with the control aspects of the operation. Control sites are supposed to be free of the substance whose effects are being tested. But, Sanders argued, that was not the case. When the GURC report said there was little or no difference in measurements of marine life near active oil platforms and at control areas, what it apparently was reflecting was not health but lowlevel malaise. The whole area, said Sanders, was slightly but surely polluted.

Good scientific measurements are being made on the bank right now, some of which can provide crucial baseline information. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is synthesizing decades of fish-stock assessments and other data that may indicate why Georges is so rich biologically. Data acquired recently by investigators at Woods Hole and commercial laboratories may, when worked up, yield a more complete picture of the way the currents work; at long last the strength and extent of the clockwise gyre around the bank may be demonstrated. Perhaps the most elegant measurements are being taken by the Geological Survey. They are designed to reveal patterns and frequency of sediment transport, particularly fine-grained sediments of the sort that trap oil particles in the ocean.

The initial environmental disturbance could come from the drilling muds. These are chemical concoctions piped down the drill hole to provide a hydraulic head that will keep pressures from perforated rock formations in check, to lubricate the drill bit, and to flush out cuttings. Until recently, formulae have been regarded by the oil and mud companies as proprietary information, and even now there are so many muds and so little information

about them that it is difficult to draw up a monitoring scheme for them. The chief culprits seem to be heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, some of which occur as contaminants in ores such as barite, which is processed into a substance to weight the muds. But even without these poisons, muds discharged during drilling can spread out on the bottom around the rig and suffocate bottom life. One well usually accounts for perhaps 1,000 cubic meters of mud and drill cuttings, enough to cover a square kilometer to a depth of one millimeter. If the grains are fine enough, that seemingly negligible amount may be sufficient to clog the filter-feeding mechanisms of some benthic organisms and kill them. Muds from the half-dozen exploratory rigs that will be on the bank in the beginning will probably not be much of a problem. Mud from a fully developed field may be another question.

But what also worries many scientists is the all-but-invisible chronic seepage of pollutants, the phenomenon the GURC study sought to address. It is true that rigs are likely to be run efficiently and with more cleanliness than a layman might think. But leaks and dribbles and discharges do occur: from the platforms; from tankers (even if modern vessels with segregated ballast systems are used, some oil is sure to be spilled during winter loadings on Georges); and from pipelines. (If gas is what is found and produced, pollution should be minimal—assuming it is dry gas unmixed with liquid hydrocarbons—but in the case of oil, pipeline ruptures could be disastrous.)

Bob Howarth, of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, has been trying to arouse concern over the chronic discharge problem. "On Georges Bank," he says, "every five years or so, you get a really outstanding population of adult fish. No one knows what causes that. One of the better guesses is that it's related to the integrity of the gyre on Georges. If you have a really tight gyre, where the current pattern actually is closed, the fish eggs and larvae maintain themselves on the bank, where there's high primary production. You have a high survival rate and a good age class. If that's true, the same years the gyre's tight may be those in which you'll have the biggest problems with chronic oil releases building up in the gyre. What you'd get then would be serious damage to the fish eggs and larvae, and an end to the big age classes. Every year would be mediocre to average. It'll be harder than hell to show." Howarth pauses. "But it's a reasonable scenario, and I think the solution is to minimize those chronic discharges."

Howarth is talking about extremely low levels of pollution. The studies he mentions deal with concentrations of ten parts per billion—ten parts of pollutant to a billion parts of seawater, levels discernible by only the most sophisticated laboratory equipment. Yet these extreme dilutions sicken plaice and disorient lobsters. Some research indicates that in time they may severely reduce the populations of diatoms that now predominate on Georges at the base of the food chain. The worry is that the diatoms would be replaced by smaller flagellates, with unknown but possibly catastrophic effect on the fisheries.

There are detectable traces of chronic pollution—from tankers carrying oil to New England, from the fouled rivers—out on Georges right now. Why haven't those substances produced measurable effects on fish eggs and larvae? The answer could be that linking cause to effect in the water column is difficult under any circumstances. Fish, eggs, nutrients, pollutants, are in constant flux. It may be important that eggs and larvae on Georges are sustained from time to time in a gyre (as opposed to the young of most commercially important Gulf species, which spend their early days in estuaries and marshes). But putting numbers to the processes that govern the survival of those tiny organisms—distinguishing damage due to low-level pollution from damage due to storms or currents or a temporary drop-off in food—is next to impossible at this point. Marvin Grosslein, a fisheries biologist at Woods Hole who is working on NMFS productivity studies, says pollution is "simply one of a jumble of factors that we haven't had the logistic resources or the technology or the insight to Identify."

The bottom appears more amenable to research—and probably in the long run more important in terms of effects of drilling and production. Fred Grassle, of the Oceanographic, a benthic biologist, has been measuring natural changes on and in the bank's sand and gravel, particularly those wrought by winter storms. Though oil discharges can do away with a year class of fish, Grassle thinks that concern should be focused on where toxic materials concentrate and where damage can mean recovery only after years or decades. He and others have advised the biological task force on the matter, and that is the direction the federal monitoring plan will take.

The arrival of the oil industry on Georges was so long anticipated that it lost some dimensions of reality in the waiting. The Zapata Saratoga cured that illusion in July when it flooded its pontoons and settled down over the bank to make a hole for Shell. Now that the place is both a fishing ground and a frontier area, questions about resource competition will be answered. Some, like the nature and extent of the petroleum resource, probably will have to await the outcome of two more lease sales—one, in deeper water, in August of next year, and the other in February of 1984. But in time, New England and the nation will know who benefits at whose expense.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1981/09/oil-fish-and-georges-bank/304221/