Global Fishing Watch tools offer a chance for balance where oil and ecosystems cross paths

Travelling on the Waini Rivier

For centuries, the numerous rivers and creeks that make their way to the Atlantic have acted as roads in the everyday lives of Guyana’s Indigenous communities, and avenues for economic activities on Guyana’s coast. The ocean has historically and culturally linked Guyana to the English-speaking Caribbean through trade, offshore fishing and, more recently, oil and gas development.

In 2015, one of the world’s most important oil and gas blocks was discovered by Exxon 120 miles from the Guyanese coast. This discovery promises to change the lives of its citizens drastically over the next decade. Discussions about this development now center around technical risks and marine environmental hazards, such as the oil platform fire in the Gulf of Mexico in 2021. 

Guyana’s marine environment is home to sperm whales, pygmy killer whales, dolphins, marine turtles, sharks and more than 900 species of fish, some of which support the local artisanal and industrial fisheries sector. For a long time, knowledge of these species was based on strandings, their presence in neighboring countries and accounts from fishermen, and the first extensive expedition and survey of Guyana’s marine area was only conducted in late 2021. This is a great start to understanding what marine species are present and therefore at risk as Guyana begins to extract its oil riches.

Hanan Lachmansingh, left, presents Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture Zulfikar Mustapha with a hardcopy of the report “The Impacts of a Growing Oil and Gas Sector on Guyana’s Marine Vessel Traffic from 2015 to 2020” during an August 2021 meeting between members of the Guyana Marine Conservation Society (GMCS) and the minister to discuss areas of collaboration on fisheries research, and other partnerships.

Global Fishing Watch has its sights set on helping to assure that marine life is not left behind in the new rush to exploit oil and gas. The nonprofit organization has been a key partner in collecting baseline environmental and human activity data for Guyana to support better management and protection of its water by working with local agencies and NGOs to facilitate marine science research. These partnerships include work with the Guyana Marine Conservation Society (GMCS) to document the increase of ship traffic in Guyanese waters dating from the first oil exploration in 2015 to production in 2020. 

In 2020, when the global pandemic saw a near 44 percent decrease in overall vessel traffic, the number of vessels visiting the Liza Destiny- a floating, production, storage and offloading vessel –increased, a trend likely to continue. This highlights the importance of proper surveillance and monitoring of the marine environment to assess potential impacts such as pollution, ship strikes, underwater noise and interactions with marine mammals.

Measuring the value of marine life to people and nature

Guyana’s marine environment is changing and its future is turbulent and unknown. Compared to the rest of the Caribbean, Guyana’s coastal waters are opaque from the silt carried by the rivers draining into the Atlantic, so that when you look out from Georgetown’s seawall, you see crashing and tumbling brown waves. This sight is enjoyed by many Guyanese for ‘liming’—hanging out—after work, exercising and even photoshoots. Minibars and food shops are set up most afternoons to cater to the crowd, and on weekends the seawall is buzzing with activity. Having access to a blue space such as the seawall can help with mental wellbeing. In a country that once had the highest suicide rate in the world, it is crucial to hold spaces where people can benefit from the oceans’ restorative effect.

With a massive oil and gas block discovered offshore, Guyana is at a crossroads, and its citizens are calling for a balance between oil wealth and a fragile marine environment that nourishes lifestyles and rich cultural traditions.

Beyond these benefits, the coastal and marine environments are important to Guyana’s people, nature and economy. Local, Indigenous and other fishers depend on fisheries in the rivers and ocean for food and livelihood—the artisanal, industrial and semi-industrial fisheries sector of Guyana contributes approximately $8.3 billion GYD to the gross domestic product and employs over 15,000 people. Given recent developments, the fishing community is concerned about how the oil industry will affect them, and calls have been made for studies on fish populations and on potential impacts of the oil industry on fish stocks. Fishers have reported a reduction in their fish catch and some have claimed that oil vessels have chased them from their traditional fishing grounds. It is a leading concern that, although there is a national oil spill contingency plan, the capacity building to ensure its execution requires specialized training and equipment that is not readily available in Guyana. Moving forward, Guyana needs to prioritize training the members of its oil spill response committee and other relevant institutions to ensure there is a mechanism that will protect Guyana’s land and sea resources, should the need arise. Without research to quell fears—and with a lack of trust in the government—many people seem worried that the promised riches of the oil industry may skip them and bring only detriment.

Research and Management Challenges 

The Guyana Marine Conservation Society (GMCS) gives a demonstration of the Global Fishing Watch Marine Manager at a meeting with Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture Zulfikar Mustapha.

By providing dynamic, interactive marine data in near real-time, the Global Fishing Watch Marine Manager supports the design, management and monitoring of marine protected areas. In Guyanese waters, the marine manager portal has highlighted a steep increase of marine vessel traffic, related to Guyana’s growing oil and gas sector. As documented in a report on this issue, 36 percent of all vessels observed in Guyanese waters were potentially connected to the oil extracting sector, with an increase of 38 percent in numbers of oil-related vessels observed between 2015 and 2020. Additionally, an increase of 227 percent in oil-related activity was observed between 2018 and 2020. Further research using the marine manager portal is now under way to assess the potential impacts this increase in ships and activity might have for Guyana’s marine life. The report was presented to the minister of agriculture in 2021 to inform and demonstrate how to use the marine manager portal to monitor Guyana’s exclusive economic zone.

Guyana is poised to undergo significant economic growth, and the effects of this growth go beyond the immediate marine environment surrounding offshore drilling. To accommodate the increasing vessel traffic, more shore bases need to be built, and this controversial development is where Guyana’s coast is most vulnerable. Guyana’s civil society, including GMCS, has raised concerns about transforming offshore gas into energy when it not only compounds the climate crisis but contradicts Guyana’s pledge of reducing our carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030, in addition to appearing disconnected from the country’s draft Low Carbon Development Strategy.

Despite these concerns, there has been little research and investment in Guyana’s marine environment, due to a lack of awareness and resources. There is now an urgent need for better integration of science into policy-making. Lacking baseline research, it is difficult to project the impacts of anthropogenic activity in Guyana’s marine space. Transparent policy, clear and actionable data and significant analysis are needed to ensure a balance can be reached between oil wealth and a fragile ocean.

Hanan Lachmansingh is a volunteer for the Guyana Marine Conservation Society.

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