Lessons from the whales

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Dear Editor: 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 to me 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 oil fields. If an oil spill occurred in the Gulf, some theories indicate that floating crude would circulate around the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, Québec, N.B., P.E.I. and N.S., smothering instead of dispersing.

2. What happens in the Gulf stays in the Gulf. It is believed the blue whales died somewhere off Cape Anguille, in the vicinity of the Old Harry geological structure. This is an area that is of great interest to exploration companies for its oil and gas potential.

The carcasses were apparently captured by the current and floated northward, along the coast of the Port au Port Peninsula, past the Bay of Islands, and north to Bonne Bay where two grounded and others continued to drift in the direction of the Strait of Belle Isle.

This shows me what would likely happen if there were to be an oil spill in the Old Harry area.

I suspect the oil would be carried by the northward current, just like the dead whales, 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/1748-9326/9/5/054001/article.)

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

Oil exploration and exploitation are accompanied by spills and leaks.

Seismic mapping is suspected of damaging 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 me that it should end now with a ban on hydrocarbon extraction in the precious and vulnerable ecosystem of the Gulf.

Michael Burzynski, Rocky Harbour

Organizations: Dear Editor, National Geographic

Geographic location: Port aux Basques, Trout River, Newfoundland and Labrador Québec Cape Anguille Port au Port Peninsula Bay of Islands Bonne Bay Gros Morne National Park Red Bay

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  • Jane Thomson
    May 16, 2014 - 09:38

    Well said, Michael. I have cruised the Gulf and the spectre of an oil spill there gives me nightmares. It's also a stormy area. If oil rigs take up positions in the Gulf a spill is not a matter of "if" -- just when. At present, the oil industry considers a 15% cleanup a success.