Canada

A sanctuary at risk

JOHN GEDDES March 30 1998
Canada

A sanctuary at risk

JOHN GEDDES March 30 1998

A sanctuary at risk

About 260 km off eastern Nova Scotia, an undersea canyon known simply as the Gully plunges to depths of up to 2,500 m, by far the most dramatic fissure on the coastal shelf of eastern North America. It is a little-known geographical marvel—but one with the potential to burst onto the public consciousness as the next environmental hot spot. As home to at least 15 species of seals, dolphins and whales—including a year-round population of about 230 endangered northern bottlenose whales—the Gully has attracted enthusiastic interest from conservation groups. It has also caught the attention of energy companies that are busy developing the nearby Sable Island offshore natural gas fields. Last week, World Wildlife Fund Canada learned that the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, a joint agency of the federal and Nova Scotia governments, is accepting bids from exploration companies for drilling sites that include parts of the Gully. “We feared that the Sable Island offshore energy play was going to be a stepping-stone to the Gully,” says WWF Canada president Monte Hummel. “Our worst nightmares are coming true.”

If the petroleum board’s move is a nightmare for Hummel, it is not exactly a dream come true for federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister David Anderson. His officials are acutely aware of how the prospect of oil and

Oil drilling' threatens a whale habitat

gas drilling in a key whale habitat is likely to stir up outrage among environmental groups. Privately, DFO officials expressed annoyance that the board would permit energy companies to bid on exploration leases before the department releases a proposed conservation plan for the Gully, likely sometime next month. To make the timing even worse, DFO is only two or three weeks away from separately releasing a broader scheme for creating Marine Protected Areas—a new federal designation that might eventually apply to the Gully. For Anderson, the storm of controversy brewing over the Gully threatens to overshadow any kudos he might have hoped to win by announcing the first few of the new oceanic protected zones, on a pilot-project basis, by summer.

The chain of events that led to the board’s decision to quietly call for bids on drilling sites in and around the Gully is murky. The Halifax-based board operates with a large measure of autonomy from the politicians who appoint its five members. Steve Bigelow, the board’s manager of offshore petroleum resources and rights, says its usual practice is to put potential exploration sites up for bids whenever an energy company expresses an interest in a particular area. But the identity of the company that sets the bidding process in motion is kept secret. Bigelow said a dozen companies have expressed an interest

in buying the rights to sections of an area of more than 500,000 hectares, including parts of the Gully, that the agency made available to the industry late last year. The bidding closes at the end of April.

The board’s willingness to press ahead highlights the uncertainty surrounding the Gully’s status. “Until such time as there is a declared Marine Protected Area, or a moratorium [on drilling] imposed, we have to at least keep an open mind on this,” said Bigelow. “And we just haven’t received all the details yet THE as to why this should be a protected area.” In fact, despite interest in the area’s ecology P that extends back over f several decades, there is still debate among scientists over just how important or unique the Gully is. The Canadian Wildlife Service declared Sable Island a migratory bird sanctuary in the 1930s. In 1992, the federal government identified the Gully as one of three candidates for designation as a “marine area of Canadian significance” off Nova Scotia. Two years later, Fisheries and Oceans named the Gully a whale sanctuary, but without defining the exact level of protection that designation carries.

The key to the Gully’s future could be the proposed conservation strategy DFO plans to release in April. Extensive scientific research that went into drafting that report is now in the last stages of being hammered into a final version. Not all the conclusions are likely to please groups, led by WWF Canada, that are urging a ban on all oil and gas exploration in the Gully and restrictions on fishing. DFO officials involved in the research said some of the findings suggest the populations of plants, fish and marine mammals that live in the Gully may not be so unusual as was widely believed. Even Hummel acknowledges the Gully may turn out to be, in many respects, typical of coastal waters off Nova Scotia. But at the same time, he stresses that the bottlenose whales and some rare corals set it apart. DFO seems to accept his argument that something has to be done—and soon. ‘We know those whales are there,” says Helen Joseph, national co-ordinator of the department’s Marine Protected Areas initiative, “and we recognize that we have to do something more proactive.” With the petroleum board set to award exploration rights as early as May, the time left for Ottawa to make clear its intentions for the Gully is running short.

JOHN GEDDES in Ottawa