Opinion Extra

SC leaders should back McMaster’s opposition of seismic testing, offshore drilling

Groups that oppose Atlantic oil drilling have held protests up and down the coast since the Trump administration advanced plans for oil exploration in the region. Here, protestors hold a sign in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at the annual Hands Across the Sand event in 2017.
Groups that oppose Atlantic oil drilling have held protests up and down the coast since the Trump administration advanced plans for oil exploration in the region. Here, protestors hold a sign in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at the annual Hands Across the Sand event in 2017. The Sun News file photo

The Trump administration proposed opening almost all federal waters to oil and gas development – a move that would put South Carolina’s fishery resources and hundreds of related businesses at risk. This poorly considered policy could severely damage South Carolina’s coastal economy.

I’ve spent my career researching the fundamental biology of economically important fishes and participating in fishery resources policy development. I’ve served three terms on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council setting regulations to ensure sustainable fisheries, and have participated in numerous state and international fishery management committees.

You don’t need to be a marine scientist to know seismic testing is the first step to offshore drilling. This development could have severe economic impacts on sectors that underpin South Carolina’s coastal tourism industry. We found that snapper and grouper brought to dock here move through seven different supply chain levels from boat deck to plate, with economic repercussions at each step. Consider the wide-spread blows to everyone in that supply chain: from the boat captain and crew to seafood processors and restaurant staff where the fish ends up on your dinner plate. Coastal restaurants know that local fish are a necessity on their menu. Do you go to Myrtle Beach, Georgetown or Charleston for steaks, hamburgers and pork chops?

The precursor to offshore drilling – seismic airgun blasting – shoots incredibly loud blasts of air miles into the seafloor to look for potential oil and gas deposits. One of the loudest man-made sounds in the ocean, these blasts can be heard underwater up to 2,500 miles away. Fish are simple creatures, but they feel pain and are very sensitive to noise. Anyone that fishes recreationally knows not to make sharp noises in the boat. A fish’s response to noise is to flee. The sound from an airgun can change schooling patterns, interrupt spawning behavior and disturb habitat use. One study found seismic blasting for oil and gas suppressed catch rates by up to 80 percent in certain fish, like haddock, cod and herring. Fishermen who have fished these waters for generations cannot afford to burn fuel and time to find new fishing grounds.

Seismic blasting has a negative effect on every sector of the fishing industry. South Carolina’s coastal ocean, estuaries and wetlands are nurseries of the sea for juvenile fish, crabs and shrimp. For South Carolina, healthy estuaries and coastal wetlands are at the crux of our state’s thriving coastal economy. These habitats play a vital role in the food chain – providing breeding grounds and growth areas for fish and wildlife – including the fish and shrimp that mature and are harvested offshore. They sustain the fisheries on which locals rely to make their living, but such habitats are devastated if subjected to an oil spill.

The potential harm to businesses and families from this extensive exploration is underscored by the fact that South Carolinians do not want drilling activities. Every community on our coast opposes seismic testing and offshore drilling. Jobs generated by the tourism industry employ many more locals than the oil industry could. A highly automated industry, oil corporations will outsource crews from their home base in the Gulf. Any step to develop oil and gas off our state is a bad investment for our fisheries, coastal communities and economy.

The Trump administration should reverse course on risky exploration and drilling for oil and gas in the Atlantic. Our elected officials, the General Assembly, all state agencies and particularly the entire S.C. congressional delegation need to join Gov. Henry McMaster in opposing seismic testing and offshore drilling. The continued success and growth of South Carolina’s economy depend on it.

Dr. Dean has a PhD and is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina.

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