Trump's offshore drilling plan could hurt Maine lobsters and Maryland crabs

Maine lobsters. Maryland crabs. Washington tribal land. South Carolina tourism.All are vulnerable to the Trump...

Posted: Feb 1, 2018 1:49 AM
Updated: Feb 1, 2018 1:49 AM

Maine lobsters. Maryland crabs. Washington tribal land. South Carolina tourism.

All are vulnerable to the Trump administration's plan to expand offshore drilling.

"It doesn't make any sense," said David Cousens, president of the 1,200-member Maine Lobstermen's Association. "We would lose all the lobsters up here."

Maine lobster catches were worth more than $500 million in 2016, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Interior Department released a draft proposal earlier this month that would open 90% of the nation's outer continental shelf -- the hundreds of miles between state coasts and the deep sea -- for oil and gas leases.

Related: Trump admin intends to roll back ban on offshore drilling

"Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in the department's announcement.

The five-year plan is set to begin in 2019 and would reverse Obama administration orders barring drilling on nearly all of the U.S. coast. For the first time since the 1980s, oil companies could get new leases in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The Chamber of Commerce supports the decision, arguing it "would help cement America's role as an energy superpower, creating jobs and contributing to our economy."

But the plan has faced intense public scrutiny during a 60-day public comment period. Opposition has created strange bedfellows.

15 governors have come out against the expansion. Governors in Maine, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Alaska support it.

After backlash in Florida, Zinke exempted the state from the proposal. "The coastal currents are different, the layout of where the geology is," Zinke told CNN.

Related: Zinke on offshore drilling flip: Florida's 'coastal currents' are different

Other states are seeking exemptions, too. They argue drilling hurts jobs, discourages tourism and threatens their economies.

"Jeopardize our whole industry"

Fishermen and environmental advocates say searching for offshore oil can damage marine life, because surveyors shoot the ocean floor with airguns.

Seismic exploration's "impacts include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even beach strandings and death," according to the advocacy group Oceana.

Shortly before leaving office, the Obama administration denied permits to oil companies for seismic testing in the Atlantic. In May, the Interior Department said it would resume requests for surveys.

Fishermen also worry about the possibility of an environmental disaster like the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico spill.

In Mississippi, seafood and commercial fishing sales dropped by nearly 50% between 2009 and 2010 and jobs fell by a third, according to a survey from Mississippi State University's Coastal Research and Extension Center.

The BP spill hurt the state's seafood industry, too, because people were concerned about consuming fish from the Gulf, according to a 2015 report from Mississippi State Professor Ben Posadas.

Related: 5 years after the Gulf oil spill: What we do (and don't) know

An oil spill could kill newborn lobsters, which float on the top of the Gulf of Maine during the first year of their lives, noted Cousens, from the Lobstermen Association.

"It's not a matter of if -- it's when," he said of a spill.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's administration asserts drilling in the Atlantic would disrupt marine ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay, home to Maryland's famous blue crabs.

"It could jeopardize our whole industry," said Robert Brown, president of the 5,000-member Maryland Waterman's Association.

Brown has many questions about the plan and fears drilling could block crabs and fish swimming in and out of the Chesapeake.

Even a minor spill in the Atlantic could carry over into the mouth of the Chesapeake and block crabs' entry into the bay. That would devastate catches, he explained.

3,000 miles away, in Neah Bay, Washington, Makah Tribe Chairman Nathan Tyler shares Brown's concerns.

The Makah have lived in Neah Bay near the Canadian border for centuries. Fishing is the "lifeblood" of the tribe, Tyler said.

"We're highly dependent on the resources of the ocean," he said.

More than 70% of the tribe's income comes from Neah Bay and nearby Cape Flattery, including salmon, halibut and cod fishing. Whale and bird watching and chartered boat trips also contribute to the tribe's steady ecotourism dollars.

Tyler is "frustrated" about the Trump administration's offshore drilling expansion plan and said an oil spill would "cripple" the Makah.

"We can't just get up and move," he said. "We can't fish anywhere else."

"It's about our beaches"

In States like South Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey, tourism along the coasts provides jobs and drives local economies.

In 2014, there were 560,000 ocean-dependent tourism and recreation jobs in six mid-Atlantic coastal states, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey's National Ocean Economics Program.

There were more than 300,000 ocean jobs in four Southeastern states, the university found.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has asked his "good friend" Trump to exempt the state from drilling.

"We cannot afford to take a chance with our beauty, our majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline in South Carolina," McMaster said.

Related: Nearly every governor with ocean coastline opposes Trump's drilling proposal

Tourism is South Carolina's largest industry. It brought in $20 billion in 2015, the most recent year on record. Six coastal counties generated 68% of visitor spending.

An oil spill would slow visitors coming to South Carolina's beaches. BP paid $1.9 billion in damages from lost tourism and recreation in the first two years after the Gulf of Mexico spill, according to the Bureau of Ocean Management.

Tourists, homeowners and renters also won't appreciate rigs and tugboats circling the coastal waters, says Sandra Bundy, a realtor in Myrtle Beach and member of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic. They'll also object to oil companies building refinery complexes on the coastland to transport oil.

"Where's the industrialization going to go?" she wonders. "Somebody's neighborhood is going to get a huge disruption."

Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett worries it will be his town. It makes $1.5 billion a year from visitors coming to its 12 miles of beaches.

"Tourists are not coming here to view infrastructure," he said.

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