Beyond Boom and Bust: Listening to the Atlantic on World Oceans Day

By Gretchen Fitzgerald
Sierra Club Canada Foundation Atlantic Chapter Director.

Gretchen is writing today's blog in honour of World Oceans Day. 

The return of folks from western oil and gas fields as a result of the plunge in oil prices and devastating fires in Northern Alberta may seem to have nothing to do with Oceans Day. But to longtime residents of Atlantic Canada being buffeted by economic and ecological tides, it is a rhythm that is all-too-familiar.

As a resident of St. Anthony, Newfoundland, on the northern tip of the province, I experienced the collapse of the cod fishery as a child. And as a child, I observed and accepted the changes in the people and places around me—things like the lights in the fish plant going dark, boats being for sale (with no buyers), more idle men in shops, families split apart as people struggled to find work —as inevitable. Or at least unstoppable.

As a university student of eminent fisheries scientists Ransom Myers and Jeff Hutchings, I learned that declines in the cod stocks that led to the fisheries collapse were well-known, but that the government ignored the advice of its own scientists—people like Myers and Hutchings. The writing was on the wall but was ignored, with effects that are still being felt by the oceans and the people who live next to it to this day.

Now, some of these people are returning to communities they left seeking the prosperity the oil boom provided. Some are home for good. Others just need a respite from the hellish fires that destroyed their homes. Unfortunately, the ocean riches we once relied on are nowhere near what they should be to support this influx. The damage has simply been too profound.

Scientists warn us that not only has overfishing shattered food webs, but climate change is creating a disconnect between where animals live and where they can successfully find prey and raise their young. Ocean acidification is melting the protective shells of magical animals like the sea butterfly and corals that evolved over millennia. The mountains of plastic we rely on for “everyday” items is clogging the gills and gullets of fish and birds to the degree that by mid-century there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

And even as the world declares the end of the fossil fuel era, oil companies are seeking to blast and drill deeper and deeper, trying to get a foothold in even more fragile and vital ecosystems like the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Damn the consequences for endangered species like the magnificent blue whale and the sustainable industries of tourism and fishing that still thrive there.

I wish I could say on Oceans Day that healthy oceans could provide for those moving away from the oil fields, not to mention those fleeing war zones. With some exceptions (like the upswing in the lobster fishery), that’s simply not the case. But it could be with smart planning and innovation in how we fish and steward our oceans into the future.

Efforts like the Petty Harbor Fisherman Producers Co-op, the Canso trap shrimp fishery, and the innovative Iron and Earth initiative to retrain oil workers in renewable energy, are lighthouses of hope in a treacherous sea. Not to mention our brand new initiative to reimagine our gateway to our oceans, our harbours, to become places where we work and play.

Let’s use them as our guides. This is particularly critical now, because while our oceans can regenerate, the bust in the oil patch may not return to boom status ever again.

Federal policy advisers are telling the Trudeau government that the volatility of oil prices is placing oil sands development at risk, and the global commitment to tackling climate change means fossil fuel infrastructure and projects are a risky investment. It remains to be seen if this warning will be heeded or ignored, as it was in the case of the cod fishery collapse.

In the meantime, the oil bust is providing Atlantic Canada with a much-needed influx of people to create the vibrancy we need. I wish and hope that some of our return migrants will be able to stay and be part of rebuilding a society based less on boom and bust, and more in tune with the rhythms we see all around us.

We can do that, too, if we truly listen to our oceans and what they are trying to tell us every day, and most specifically on World Oceans Day.


Gretchen Fitzgerald.

One Earth • One Chance

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