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The Blue Whale

Posted on November 14, 2014 by Bruce MacNaughton

Blue Whale

Shirley and I certainly wanted to support Colin in his efforts to bring attention the perils of oil and gas exploration close to our shores in Prince Edward Island, were happy that we did. The music and the company of guests made for a wonderful evening. Shannon was so kind to take few photos from the evening and share her experience, so we put it here in words. Thank you Shannon and thank you Colin.   

A guest post by Shannon Courtney

“The Gulf of St Lawrence is like a nursery, it’s where the Northwest Atlantic Ocean’s fish come to spawn and raise their young” explained Colin Jeffrey to a captivated audience that had filled the PEI Preserve Company dining room on a rainy Saturday in early November. We had come together for an evening of food and music in a support of the Blue Whale Campaign fundraising efforts, which is being spearheaded by the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter and the PEI Chapter of Save Our Seas and Shores.

I had made my way out to New Glasgow in the company of my partner and a friend. I was excited about the evening’s promise of a delicious roast chicken dinner prepared by the Preserve Co.’s staff and the chance to learn more about the Blue Whale Campaign.  
Unbeknownst to me, we would also be treated to a full hour of musical entertainment courtesy of Mr. Jeffrey, an accomplished fiddler, and talented fellow musicians Mary MacGillivray and Blaine Hrabi. 

Sitting down at a table set for six, I silently thanked the MacNaughtons for warming the dining room up before we all arrived since they are normally closed at this time of the year. Soon we were joined by a couple of familiar faces and as I surveyed the room my gaze set upon several more folks I knew. It was a subtle, warming reminder that PEI is a community and no matter where you go, you’re bound to end up amongst friends. 

The evening’s agenda began with dinner being served (always a wise move when the scents of home-cooking are wafting out from the kitchen!). After we were all sufficiently satiated by a generous meal, Colin made his way to the mic to speak to us about the Blue Whale Campaign.

I have to admit that while I consider myself a friend of the environment and try to stay informed about issues affecting us regionally, my appreciation for how the Gulf of St. Lawrence contributes to the Atlantic ocean’s ecosystem was rather lacking. Thankfully, Colin’s presentation struck just the right balance for those of us needing an overview – informative and engaging without being overwhelming.

He started by highlighting some of the existing and emerging threats to the Gulf of St. Lawrence’s inhabitants, which include a vast number of fish species that spawn and raise their young in the Gulf’s waters. Some of the most important and at-risk species include krill, lobster, cod and blue whales. Krill are to fish as grains are to humans – they serve as the basis for the marine food chain and the Gulf is home to the largest concentration of krill in the northwest Atlantic. Lobsters, as every Islander knows, are extremely important to the Atlantic fishery and, in fact, the Gulf provides for the largest production of this crusty crustacean in the world!

Many of the threats currently facing the Gulf of St Lawrence relate to human activity, both globally and regionally. Colin listed some of the more notable threats that have already begun to impact the health of the Gulf:

Climate Change – Warming gulf waters are changing the habitat of its marine life; putting stress on some species while changing migration and feeding patterns. As oceans absorb vast amounts of the CO2 entering our atmosphere they are becoming more acidic, a problem that is intensified in the enclosed Gulf. Acidification poses a serious threat to marine life, particularly crustaceans who have trouble maintaining their shells in such conditions.

Invasive species – Marine species that are not native to the Gulf are making their way into its waters via international ships that are dumping ballast water too close to the shores along the Atlantic coast. One such invasive species is the green crab, which is native to Europe and is naturally aggressive. It feeds on shellfish and other crustaceans native to the Gulf.

Excess Nutrients - Current agricultural practices including heavy use of fertilizers is causing an excess of nutrient runoff into waterways, which in turn is causing algae blooms. Algae blooms can be very harmful. For example, they can produce neurotoxins, which cause developmental challenges and mortalities in fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals.

All of this is to say that the Gulf of St. Lawrence is already facing multiple threats and its continued viability is, in many ways, hanging in limbo. As we all processed the implications and impacts of the information Colin was sharing with us, he began to discuss an emerging and significant threat that the Sierra Club and Save Our Seas and Shores are currently trying to address – planned oil and gas exploration. Colin went on to explain the risks inherent in oil and gas exploration. He noted that Newfoundland is already engaged in oil drilling and there have been many small spills of oil and fuel from rigs that don’t get any media attention. Further to that, if there was ever a large spill in the Gulf it would be extremely difficult to clean up. Drilling under winter sea ice is a new approach and there is no expertise on how to deal with a spill. To really drive the message home, he noted that a best-case scenario for any oil spill clean up is 15 percent. Eek! This figure gave me the shivers as I thought back to the BP Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and contemplated how a similar catastrophe would destroy the very lifeblood of the Maritimes, our fisheries and tourism. Of course, I couldn't help but think of how such human activity would impact the larger natural world of which we are a part.

The threats posed by oil and gas exploration are so serious that the Sierra Club and Save Our Seas and Shores are calling for a moratorium. Colin also noted that two Standing Committees of the PEI government have also recommended a moratorium.

By this point in the presentation, I was thoroughly convinced a moratorium was the best way to ensure the protection of the Gulf from further threats. Still, I wondered how the Blue Whale campaign figured into the picture. Colin may have been reading my mind as he wrapped up his talk with an overview of the whale populations that depend on the Gulf of St. Lawrence for food (namely krill) and habitat. It turns out the Gulf is home to several species of whales, including the fin whale, beluga whale, pilot whale, beak whale, sperm whale, humpback whale, mink whale, killer whale and, of course, the blue whale. The blue whale is an endangered species and the Gulf is an important habitat for about 250 of them.

The Blue Whale Campaign, as I came to understand from Colin’s presentation, is an effort to educate the public about the importance of the Gulf of St Lawrence as a home to the endangered blue whale. It is also, however, part of a larger effort by several groups and concerned citizens to encourage the provincial governments to place a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Gulf.

For those of us that wanted to do more to help advance this important effort (and I daresay that would have been most everyone in the room), Colin encouraged us to stay in touch by email and visit the Save Our Seas and Shores website and/or the Sierra Club website. He further suggested we write letters to our local politicians and sign the Sierra Club’s petition. What amazing work these groups are doing!

With the educational portion of the event coming to a close, we were invited to sit back and enjoy a serving of folk music. Many of the songs we were treated to spoke to the strong emotional and spiritual ties that humans have with the land and sea, particularly those of us that have grown up in coastal areas. Traditional Scottish and Irish songs reminded me that this place we call home has seen many threats and changes over the centuries. Now, more than ever before, we have the knowledge and ability to be stewards of the land and sea upon which we have relied for sustenance since the beginning of time. And now, more than ever, I think we can see that the natural world needs for us to be good stewards and champion on its behalf.

We can start close to home by supporting efforts to protect the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the 4,000+ species that inhabit it.

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