Less than a month before the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, more than 400 representatives from New England government agencies, maritime businesses, and relevant non-profits like the Friends of Casco Bay gathered at Portland's Holiday Inn by the Bay.
They were told that just outside Portland Harbor, a crude oil tanker had crashed into a fully loaded car carrier. A snowstorm was raging — white-out conditions. Oil was pouring from the tanker, and the carrier had sunk while being towed, blocking traffic in and out of the port. Hundreds of miles of New England coastline were threatened.
It was just a drill — a massive one, the type only undertaken every few years, meant to mimic an incident that could realistically take place here, and to assess regional readiness to tackle such a disaster. Lessons learned (aside from the creepy foreshadowing abilities of New England's coastal agencies)?
"It's so critically important to have established all these working relationships in advance," says Mary Cerullo, associate director of the Friends of Casco Bay. She points to volunteer coordination and a clear chain-of-command as crucial components that were strengthened through the drill.
As does everyone who talks about the drill, Cerullo points out the sad fate of its timing (March 24-25). Just a few weeks later, federal officials, regional waterkeepers, environmentalists, and engineers had to learn the hard way in the Gulf of Mexico, where millions of gallons of oil have spilled into the sea (by way of comparison, the 1996 Julie N. spill in Portland Harbor released 180,000 gallons into Casco Bay and the Fore River).
Here in Maine, folks from the state's departments of Environmental Protection and Marine Resources have been in close contact with oceanographers to monitor whether oil from the spill will enter the Gulf Stream and migrate into Northeastern ocean waters. The Northeast Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, based in New Hampshire, wrote this after conducting several simulations of the spill: "The chances of oil impacting New England coastal waters . . . appear to be very remote."
"The bigger . . . more realistic, serious concern is the long-term negative impacts of the oil in the Gulf and the species that spawn there and then migrate up the eastern seaboard," says David Etnier, deputy DMR commissioner. "Those sorts of impacts are going to take years to really understand."
In the Maine Lobstermen's Association newsletter, UMaine marine sciences professor Jeffrey Runge notes that "the impact on plankton has been overlooked. There's not much research out there." Oh, just the first link in the food chain.
A more immediately quantifiable impact is on the price of oysters, which is going up in Maine, says Fiona Robinson, associate publisher and editor of SeaFood Business, a Portland-based monthly industry publication. Oysters, along with shrimp, crab, and finfish, are abundant in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some suppliers have turned to Maine as an alternative source. Others, like the restaurant chain Red Lobster, have simply pulled oysters from their menus.
It's easy to make the geographic leap and imagine what would happen if the seafood industry was similarly affected in Maine.