Resisting the Rigs

Fed lawsuit—backed by commercial fishermen—aims to stop drilling
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Angela Sanfilippo has been fighting to keep New England’s fishing grounds open for commercial and recreational anglers, including her husband, since back in the 1970s, when she was 27 years old. She argued under  President Carter. She got into the fight with the first President Bush. She worked with President Clinton. She battled under the second President Bush.

“A couple of years ago, we were told the area would not be touched, but here we are again,” says the now-68-year-old president of the Gloucester Fisherman’s Wives Association in Massachusetts, as she finds herself in what’s being described as a war for the entire Eastern Seaboard under the Trump administration. “Once they start, they never end. And we are concerned that it will be the whole Atlantic.”

“They,” to Sanfilippo, are the oil and gas industry, which she sees as a force that will devastate fishing grounds, marine life and boating communities up and down the U.S. East Coast. “I honestly feel betrayed by our government,” she says. “We have all the knowledge of how this has unfolded, and we’re still here, and we have younger people now joining this fight.”

The fight she’s been having for decades flared up again in late 2017, when Trump reversed Obama’s stance on issuing permits to companies that want to search for oil and gas deposits beneath the Atlantic. The companies use a technique called seismic blasting—which, according to environmental experts, is louder than a rock concert, fireworks or a space shuttle launch, leaving marine life frightened, disoriented and even dead.

Seismic blasting is a step toward erecting oil rigs and drilling, an industry that hasn’t been seen in the Atlantic for about 50 years. Energy companies use seismic blasting to find promising underwater oil and gas deposits, and then set up drilling rigs.

Now that the federal government has gone ahead and issued the seismic blasting permits to five energy companies, a coalition of environmental groups sued the Trump      administration this past December. They filed a lawsuit in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina, against the National Marine Fisheries Services, which is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration known as NOAA Fisheries. The lawsuit argues that several federal animal-protection laws were violated when the administration issued the seismic-blasting permits.

By mid-January, attorneys general in 10 Eastern Seaboard states—Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina—had joined the cause, bringing top-tier legal muscle to the fight that Sanfilippo has taken so personally for so many years. The attorneys general issued statements that echoed the same priorities from state to state, including protecting waterfront communities from all the potentially devastating effects of offshore drilling.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia and our coastal communities have made it clear time and again that we aren’t interested in offshore drilling that could threaten our coastal environment and economy just so a few oil and gas companies can make a few more bucks,” Mark R. Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, stated in a news release. “An oil spill could jeopardize the health and economic viability of the Chesapeake Bay and tourism, fishing, and military operations in Hampton Roads. We will continue to make our objections clear and use the tools at our disposal to prevent risky drilling off Virginia’s coast.”

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, everyone from aquarium operators to mayors held press conferences and issued statements in support of the lawsuit, to try and stop the seismic blasting and future drilling. Boaters and anglers were right by their sides, decrying the current administration’s moves.

“The fishing industry is made up of rugged individuals who are independent in every way, but they are fully united on this,” says J.J. Bartlett, president of Fishing Partnership Support Services, a nonprofit that aids the families of 20,000 commercial fishermen in the Northeast. “The sonic testing will have negative impacts on 28 species of fish in the North Atlantic, according to the New England fisheries council. They’re all species that people like to eat. When you move to the next stage and start building things, you’re talking about fishermen having to be out longer at sea to go around structures that didn’t exist before, having to fish among them and being in danger of washing up alongside them, the structures getting in the way of Coast Guard search and rescue efforts—there’s all sorts of risks.

And heaven forbid there’s an explosion like the Deepwater Horizon’s, he says, referring to the rig that exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. The effects can be insurmountable. “The lives of fishermen and families are destroyed,” he told Soundings. “For years after the incidents, you see spikes in depression, anxiety, divorce and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

According to news reports, every governor south of Maine, along with more than 90 percent of coastal communities, have expressed opposition to the seismic-blasting plan.

Sanfilippo says she hopes that recreational boat owners and fishermen will join the fight in greater numbers, because the current threat is on a scale that requires everyone who loves the ocean to participate. “They think we’re not paying attention and that we won’t fight back, “she says. “We need to save the oceans. And we must work together.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.