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Fairwinds Fouling up Lobster

The Fairwinds Proposal to use Harpswell’s defunct Fuel Farm as a transfer station for natural gas raises numerous questions regarding economic, cultural and environmental impacts. As a lobster biologist in my twelfth year of studying the lobsters in Harpswell waters, I am in a unique position to address the potential impacts of the proposed plan on the lobster fishery. Two components of the plan pose threats to the lobster population: (1) the pipeline traversing Casco Bay and (2) discharge from the proposed reverse osmosis desalinization plant.

How Pipelines impact lobsters:

  • Construction of pipeline may cause habitat degradation
  • Pipeline may present physical barrier to lobster movements and migration
  • Sound, vibration, and electromagnetic waves emitted by pipeline may interfere with lobster behavior
  • Pipeline may change temperatures in surrounding areas
  • Abandoned pipeline may introduce new and unanticipated threats as it degrades

My concerns about the pipeline begin with construction and end with what will become of the structure when the natural gas supply is exhausted. My understanding is that there is a very limited supply of natural gas available for the proposed pipeline and that the entire operation will be relatively short-lived. Is it worth destroying valuable habitat in the Gulf of Maine for fuel that will likely be used up in 10 – 15 years? Can anyone actually show a relevant need for subsea surface pipelines to transport natural gas?

I suspect that Fairwinds may want to tap into the wells being drilled on the Scotian Shelf if the proposed 1,100 mile-long natural gas pipeline running from the Scotian Shelf to the New York/New Jersey area goes forward. There is already a pipeline running from the Scotian Shelf to a transfer station in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. The fuel reserves on and around the Scotian Shelf are tiny compared with what has been piped out of the Gulf of Mexico. We need to consider whether it is appropriate to clutter the bottom of the Gulf of Maine to make it look like the plate of “pipeline spaghetti” on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Are the costs of long-term losses of lobsters (a renewable resource) worth the benefits of the short-term gains of transporting natural gas (a non-renewable resource)? Until more wells are drilled no one really knows how much gas is available, but geologists think the supply is minimal. In any case, the use of the pipelines will be temporary because the gas will fun out, but the empty pipe will remain as a permanent structure on the sea floor.

Laying a pipeline will irreversibly impact the seafloor habitat in Casco Bay. Pipeline construction requires various tools – depending on whether a pipeline is traversing ledge, rock, sand or mud. The pipe is made of inflexible materials that do not fit the contours of the seabed, so the seabed is moved and reshaped to fit the pipeline. The proximate result of this is that lobsters that live in and adjacent to the construction path will lose their lives; the ultimate result is that lobster of the future will lose critical habitat and, therefore, may not survive.

A pipeline would most likely act as a physical barrier to lobster movements and migrations. Adult lobsters migrate by walking. Pipelines such as the one proposed are on the order of three to four feet in diameter and they are cylindrical in shape. It is physically impossible for a lobster to climb over a surface of such magnitude. If one tried to bury the pipe, the swift tidal currents would simply dig it up again.

Getting in the way of lobster movements and migrations is not a good idea. Barricading or blocking off lobster pathways could impact the entire lobster fishery in the Gulf of Maine for generations to come. The best information available on lobster movements and migrations comes from studies of egg-bearing female lobsters. It is unlawful to harvest female lobsters who are brooding their eggs. Fertilized eggs are easy to detect because they attach themselves to the underside of the females’ abdomen (tail). Female lobsters carry their eggs for 9 –12 months. Egg-bearing female lobsters undergo large-scale movements while brooding their eggs. Some of the brooding lobsters we tagged in midcoast Maine last September traveled to Massachusetts. Many tagged eggers made round trip journeys – that is – they “egged out” (attached the eggs to the outside of the tail) in one location, brooded (carried the developing embryos) elsewhere, then hatched their larvae (released their young) as they traveled back to where they started.

Although we are only beginning to understand the broad scale impacts of lobster migrations on the future of the fishery, the story of the salmon should serve to remind us of the fate of a species whose access to spawning grounds has been denied. Dams and other obstacles to salmon movement have resulted in the loss of the salmon fishery along the east coast. A single dam did not cause the collapse of the salmon fishery - the cumulative impact of one lost stream after another, and another, did. Pipelines could be the barriers to lobster movement that seal the lobsters’ fate and the fate of those who depend on the fishery to make a living. Citizens of Harpswell, please don’t be the first to cast in the lot for lobsters and pave the way for destruction.

In addition to building the proposed gas pipeline, Fairwinds hopes to manufacture freshwater from seawater. Such an operation would introduce an additional set of problems for lobsters and raises many more questions.

Reverse Osmosis Desalinization:
  • Concentrates heavy metals
  • Causes temperature changes in surrounding area
  • Discharges high concentrations of salts and other ions

Desalinization operations produce chemicals that are toxic to lobsters – these toxins are particularly lethal to larval and juvenile stage lobsters. A thorough and critical analysis of what potential toxins will be discharged, in what concentrations, and where it will be discharged is imperative to deciding whether such an operation is acceptable. Questions that should be addressed before the project proceeds include (1) what is the nature and concentration of metals being discharged?, (2) what is the temperature of the water being discharged? And, (3) what is the concentration of salts at the discharge site?

Currently, the lobstermen in Harpswell have insufficient time to gather information on how the proposed operation will affect their future and the future of their children and grandchildren. At minimum, the town fathers should allow ample time to learn about the issues at stake. Experts should be consulted. I suggest inviting (1) a geologist to explain what the bottom habitat looks like with and without pipelines, (2) the EPA biologist who tested lobster responses to toxins, (3) someone who can explain how desalinization operations impact the environment, and (4) someone with expertise in oil spill response (so we can establish threats of spills from tankers). Most of all, I recommend that anyone interested in hearing a lobsterman’s opinion of how the Fairwinds proposal will affect the lobster industry talk to the lobstermen in Shelburne, Nova Scotia who have first-hand experience with a pipeline of their own. We also need to find out where other operations are being planned and proposed. That will help us determine what the “pipeline spaghetti” might end up looking like. I will be happy to provide names and phone numbers to anyone who is interested.

Diane F. Cowan, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
The Lobster Conservancy

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