After more than a decade of pressure from fishing groups the announcement by Minister of Food Production, Devant Maharaj, of a Cabinet committee to examine the impact of offshore seismic survey activity on fish stocks in T&T came as something of a surprise.
Given the slow progress made in a year in which Maharaj, on January 17, promised the sustainable development activist group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) that he would ask Cabinet to assess the environmental impact–followed in July, by Maharaj contacting the group to tell them the environmental impact assessment had been removed from his purview and handed to the Ministry of Finance–it appeared unlikely the Government would step in.
On September 2, FFSOS (fronted by Gary Aboud) wrote to the Prime Minister, President, Minister of Finance and 16 other ministers urging the government to stop seismic activity until an environmental impact assessment had been done.
The group had previously provided the government with what they saw as evidence of the damage being caused. Back in 2010, they compiled a 68-page booklet based on research done by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (UNFAO) and in 2011 they enlisted the help of a University of the West Indies (UWI) scientist who summarised the findings of 64 studies carried out around the world into the impacts of seismic surveying.
The UNFAO conclusion in the foreword of the 2010 dossier recommended "the urgent need for the development of a strongly regulated regime for the mitigation of seismic surveys and for further research so as to minimise the impact on coastal communities and fishers."To the dismay of the FSOS, the government did not respond to the 2010 dossier.
No research has been done locally on the impact of seismic surveys on marine life in the Caribbean, but Aboud feels that, regardless of the lack of Caribbean research, the findings in places like Canada can be transposed to T&T."The same mackerel that swim in Canada come down to Trinidad," he said.
"The government argue that the fish in, say, Antigua, might behave differently to the fish here. That's like saying humans of different races would react differently if they were exposed to a powerful blast. They would react the same."Protests by the fishing communities have taken place in Port-of-Spain, supported by activist groups.
The groups are enraged that 56 seismic surveys–lasting months at a time–have been carried out by local and international oil companies in T&T waters in the last 13 years. Fishermen have described their impact on fish stocks as devastating.
A focus of Aboud's ire is the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), which he accuses of "rubber-stamping" agreements that allow oil companies to continue using the controversial procedure to search for oil and natural gas. The EMA, he says, is exposing a "loophole in the law, whereby if the EMA arbitrarily decides that the impact of seismic bombing is minimal, then the work goes ahead." In Suriname, Venezuela and Costa Rica, by contrast, Aboud said EIAs are required before any activity is allowed.
The EMA responded to these criticisms with an admission that "fish within a certain distance of the air gun array are negatively impacted by the sound," and promised further details in due course. In a statement to the T&T Guardian, the EMA said there are "robust guidelines to ensure that offshore activities are conducted in a regulated manner which uphold the principles of sustainable development."
On 7 November, Maharaj, following a Cabinet meeting, announced that a committee would be set up to look into the effects of seismic surveying.Aboud initially welcomed the announcement, saying: "What the government has done in recognising that the fishing community has valid concerns is a move in the right direction."
However, he also voiced several reservations and criticisms. The committee he said was too little, too late, and should have been set up ten years ago. Researching the impact on fish stocks now that they have been diminished, he described as "an oxymoron."Later he discredited the committee entirely, calling the composition of committee members–which will contain a higher number of energy sector consultants than fishing industry consultants–as "imbalanced."
He also called it a "delay tactic," and suggested the committee would take months to formulate and begin meeting, in which time no moratorium on surveys would be forthcoming.Aboud's stance that people involved in the energy sector should not be included seems unlikely to prevail, however, as the Minister of Food Production said representatives from energy companies and the Ministry of Energy would be involved.
What other research exists?
The Fisheries Division provides data on landed catches, which have been diminishing in recent years (not solely due to seismic surveys.) According to Zaheer Hosain, a Phd student at UWI studying marine fish stocks, the data ides not reveal the "true picture." He implied that the extent of depletion could be worse, since the number of marine species caught and thrown back into the sea is never recorded, meaning the scale of devastation to T&T's fisheries is difficult if not impossible to quantify.
Anecdotal evidence, collected by activists like Mark de Verteuil, reveals stories from fishermen who say they used to come back with ten buckets full of fish and now struggle to bring back one bucket, despite using micro-meshed netting to catch smaller and smaller sizes of fish.The T&T Guardian contacted the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) to ask what research had been carried out on seismic surveys, but was told they had not done any research in terms of fish stocks.
Despite what its name indicates, the IMA does not focus on the sea but on coastal and inland freshwaters such as mangroves, swamps and beaches, studying the effects of pollution and erosion.Research by oil companies has tended to focus on larger sea creatures like whales and dolphins, numbers of which have fallen consistently over the past three centuries.It is not known whether seismic surveys have further exacerbated the depletion of these cetaceans.
Last week, environmentalist Gary Aboud accused the EMA of rubber-stamping agreements allowing oil companies to continue seismic surveys without conducting EIAs.In a statement e-mailed to the T&T Guardian the EMA responded, saying:
The Environmental Management Authority (EMA), in response to enquiries about its Certificate of Environmental Clearance application process, reiterates that specific conditions are set out as it relates to off shore seismic testing. This is done in full accordance with the Environmental Management Act Chapter 35:05.
All CEC applications are screened using a Standard Operations Procedure to determine whether an EIA would be required. Generally, that decision is based on the nature, scale and location of a proposed activity and whether the baseline environmental receptors are known and the anticipated adverse impacts are well understood, are significant, and could be mitigated to within levels that would be considered acceptable.
The EMA notes that decisions by the Authority with respect to the granting of CECs can be challenged in court if there is disagreement with any decision and the Authority guards its legal mandate with great integrity.
With respect to the disturbance, displacement and detriment to the fish stock, there are research papers on this topic. Some families of fish that occur locally are more susceptible to sounds eg the drums and croakers. It is also known that fish within a certain distance of the air gun array are negatively impacted by the sound. The EMA will be providing further details on this topic in due course to ensure that accurate information on seismic surveys is disseminated to the public.
The activity of conducting seismic surveys is one regulated by the CEC Rules and the conditions in CECs are included to ensure that the operators reduce their impacts on the surrounding environment. Operators who hold CECs are also held accountable if there is non-compliance with the conditions.
The EMA stresses that there are robust guidelines to ensure that offshore activities are conducted in a regulated manner which uphold the principles of sustainable development. The EMA is also actively involved in reviewing and strengthening guidelines for seismic surveys to improve the CEC process.