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Misguided thinking and economic suicide

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There are many in Bermuda who claim that the PLP government squandered so much money in building up such a huge national debt of billions that it will take many decades, if ever, to repay.

However, the current OBA government is considering “giving away for free” Bermuda's assets that might be worth much more than that which the PLP “wasted”. Indeed the OBA is contemplating legislation that could prevent Bermuda from being in the position to pay off that huge debt.

Which of the above two behaviours is the more heinous: what the PLP did, or what the OBA are considering?

How, you may ask, did this state of affairs come about? Surely this Government understands finance, and the seriousness of Bermuda's economic situation: the OBA would not voluntarily throw away, for free, the country's assets, and thereby loose an opportunity to pay off that colossal debt?

I am afraid it is true. It is a fact that a foreign foundation has managed to convince a number of Bermudians to accept the idea that Bermuda should, for free, ban fishing and undersea mining in Bermuda's Exclusive Economic Zone.

What is this EEZ, you may ask?

Our EEZ [emphasis here is on the word ‘economic', not ‘maritime'] is an area that reaches out around Bermuda as far as 200 miles, granted to Bermuda under International Law. Do not make the emotional mistake of limiting your thinking of the relatively small reef area of 300 square miles called the Bermuda platform, or the “Banks” visited by local fishermen.

Put into perspective, Bermuda's EEZ is an area of some 1,500 sq miles, and equals a footprint the size of the British Isles, that is an area that includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yes, it is a very large slice of land.

Our EEZ is one of the largest areas of open “land” in the world. It is not limited to that little bit of ocean you see from the shoreline: our EEZ stretches almost one third of the way to the United States' East Coast. It is vast.

Believe me when I say that our EEZ is of vital economic importance to Bermuda's financial future. Much larger countries envy our luck in owning the rights to such a huge piece of ‘property'. It is ours alone to exploit: we do not have to share any of its potential resources with any other country. [Compare our situation with, say the North Sea, where the UK have to share the phenomenal oil assets on the bottom of the North Sea with Norway — and what a bonanza that has proved to little Norway.]

It is my opinion the hundreds of thousands of square miles of land below the ocean surrounding Bermuda could be utilised to pay off our billions of dollars of national debt, and also have money left over to enrich future generations.

However, at this moment, our Government, led by an outside foundation, is considering “freezing” this colossal area, and passing legislation that will ensure that Bermudians will NOT be able to benefit from vast riches that may be below the sea.

The proposal of the Blue Halo group, motivated, without doubt, by the purest of environmental intentions, but woefully ignorant of economic realities, and funded by outside money, is to encourage the Government to put this ban into effect.

Enormous pressure, including advertising and lobbying is being exerted on the people of Bermuda, and its Government, to ban all activities outside fifty miles, from the surface to the very bottom, which, I must add, is some 12,000 feet down.

Such activities as fishing and mining of the bottom of the ocean will be banned. Such a law, in short, will result in Bermuda surrendering any possibility of ever earning any monies from the sea and the floor below — an area, I repeat, that is as big as the whole of the British Isles.

Let me remind everyone that the ocean around Bermuda is 12,000 feet deep — yes, it is almost two miles to the bottom, a depth that is as high as Mt Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, and as deep as the wreck of the “Titanic”.

However, let me assure you that modern technology has designed equipment to lift things from the bottom of the ocean even at that great depth. It can be carried out with the minimum of environmental damage.

Whereas I am amazed at the sea life that surrounds the thousands of ‘black smokers', vents caused by cracks in the ocean flood, that occur all over the world, I am concerned by the 2000 degrees C steam and poison gas that spews out. However, these standing columns that remain when it cools, and goes extinct, and can reach 100 feet, are of great interest: they contain tons of valuable minerals.

Vanuatu, the Pacific nation formally known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, has found that these columns in their EEZ, which standup off the ocean floor, contain large quantities of gold and other metals. Not surprisingly its government is planning to exploit these potential riches, and they are seeking outside investors.

Should not such columns, which stick up like farmers' carrots, be harvested like carrots on dry land: or should these naturally occurring substances be left as memorials to our economic stupidity? No tourists will ever see them.

Many countries are now encouraging companies to explore their EEZ for minerals, while at the same time passing stringent legislation to minimise any environmental damage, and of course thereafter collect a substantial part of any profits.

How did the ‘Marine Park' idea originate?

The genesis of this scheme began as a well-meaning campaign called “The Save the Sargasso Sea Alliance”.

A few years ago it came to the attention of scientists, especially in North American, that US and Brazilian Companies were actively pursuing the idea of harvesting vast swathes of the famous Sargasso Sea and selling it for fertiliser.

The Sargasso Sea is a huge body of living organisms that floats on the surface of the sea, and covers a large area of the Atlantic Ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico: it is well to the south east of Bermuda. Because of its lack of structure, it is constantly moving, and from time to time chunks do pass through parts of our EEZ.

It must be stressed that Bermuda is not “in the Sargasso Sea”— we are too far north. In south easterly storms, and often in the spring, large patches of Sargasso weed does indeed wash up on our shores: Bermudians for hundreds of years have collected it for fertiliser.

This concern about the possible loss or damage to the Sargasso Sea, known for centuries as a hatchery for all sorts of aquatic creatures, gave rise to “The Sargasso Sea Alliance”, a worthy cause. It is safe to say that every thinking Bermudian with an ounce of “conservation in their blood” was immediately outraged, and wanted to support the “Alliance”.

However, the Sargasso Sea is, as a living creature — a collection of ‘weed' that grows just inches above the ocean surface, and only lives a few meters deep. It also tends to be difficult to track. Some years it tends to be illusive, and difficult to locate. Some years, as it did a few years ago, it swamps the shores of Caribbean islands to the south of us, with its weed that breaks off in large chunks and floats away from the central “mass”.

Not many years ago, both Antigua and the Dominican Republic had to close some hotels because their beaches were swamped by Sargasso Weed: enormous clumps, up to ten feet high, proving unmanageable as it massed in such large quantities on their beaches.

On the other hand, many years go by with little weed coming ashore.

Not surprisingly, the idea of policing this ever-moving mass of ‘weed', located in international waters, and subject to the jurisdiction of no one individual country, was fraught with difficulty, and the “Alliance” has now taken a back seat.

Enter the ‘Blue Halo' concept

It is difficult to trace how, and why, the “Alliance” morphed into the “Blue Halo”, but it is a fact that an extremely large American foundation (with almost limitless funds at their disposal) poured money and energy into shifting the emphasis of concern from the Sargasso Sea to the more attractive “target” – Bermuda's enormous EEZ.

Gone was the cry “Save the Sargasso Sea”; instead, attention was transferred to turning an area the size of the United Kingdom — some 1,500 square miles, into a “no-go/no-take” zone …. from the surface of the ocean around Bermuda to the ocean floor- some 12,000 feet down, a piece of property stretching one third of the way to the United States East Coast.

The concept of turning this massive area into a “Marine Park” grabbed the attention of all those on the Island who loved the sea, and particularly those who both loved to enjoy the beautiful views, the reefs, and the swimming around the reef platform. We all know that this beauty attracts tourists, and is good for the local economy.

Surely the idea of a Marine Park was one that no thinking person would object to: it was similar to “motherhood and apple pie”. “Would not a huge marine park, stretching out far beyond our ability to see, gain us international admiration, and the positive attention of the whole world?” they asked.

However, part of the plan also called for offshore fishing, which is currently tightly controlled by Bermuda Law, and, most importantly, any thought of mining potential minerals in our EEZ — to be banned. It appears that very little thought seemed to have been given to the possible adverse economic consequences of such as move.

Bumper stickers stating — “Blue Halo — I am a believer” began to appear on car bumpers.

It appears no one was seriously interested in examining how damaging such a total ban might be to the future economic well-being of our Island home.

The ocean floor, a possible answer to our debt problem

Two thirds of the earth is covered by ocean: hence, it is no surprise to learn that, in a world hungry for more and more resources, countries are turning to the ocean floor in the search for valuable commodities: — oil, gas, minerals of all kind, such as phosphates and polymetallic substances (better known by their old name, manganese nodules) are being found around the world. Maritime countries know that such a discovery could turn out to become the answer to their economic survival.

Countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Australia, and India, the Caymans, Jamaica and the Bahamas, to name a few, are actively looking to the ocean floor for their economic salvation.

The Cook Islands, a small island group in the western Pacific (who, incidentally, have an international business community similar to ours), have had international mining companies extremely interested in the economic potential of the polymetallic substances that lay on the deep ocean floor of their EEZ.

Guess what? The most recent geological estimates state that the Cook Islands may be sitting on something approaching TENS OF BILLIONS of dollars worth of such minerals simply lying on the bottom of the ocean surrounding their islands — no need to dig for them. These nodules are simply resting on the bottom, and can be picked up using modern technology, with minimal environmental disturbance.

The British Government and the huge American company, Lockheed Martin, have recently signed a joint venture to look for exactly the same type minerals in the eastern Pacific. The possible financial rewards for the two investors are mind-boggling.

All of these countries are introducing strict environments laws to guide the activities of such mining: they want to protect their environment, while at the same time reaping some of the financial rewards that will follow.

For example Bermuda could well introduce a law stating: “No mining within a specific depth”. There certainly is plenty of space out there. Don't forget, the EEZ goes out to 200 miles.

A way to pay of Bermuda's national debt, offshore mining

The above information ought to lead thinking people to realise that should our Government ever introduce a total ban on “offshore mining” history might end up recording such an act as being one of absolute economic stupidity.

What should the Bermuda Government do in this case?

Certainly, Bermuda should not be considering passing legislation that would ban offshore mining as such action would immediately close the door to potential foreign investors. There are too many other countries that are actively inviting prospective investors: Bermuda ought not to be scaring away potential investors and thus rejecting a God-given opportunity to earn valuable foreign exchange.

Bermuda should be following the model of other counties and be considering ways of improving current legislation, including the laws already on the books governing offshore fishing, to protect the marine environment out to 200 miles from Bermuda while encouraging foreign investment.

We need to invite foreign companies to examine the potential of Bermuda's vast deep-ocean potential, and encourage them to search these tens of thousands of square miles, and then report their findings to the Government.

Such action should cost Bermuda little: no great demand for work permits, no drain of housing. But such action could bring in valuable foreign exchange. The Government could simply lease areas of the sea-floor (say plots of ten thousand square miles) but only for “exploration” with no permission to mine.

If something valuable is “found out there”, the Bermuda Government, will require a detailed “economic impact study”, and, with strict legal guidelines, could issue licences that would result in the people of Bermuda earning a major share of the profits on any such venture.

Such positive, sensible legislation, could both protect Bermuda's environment, while at the same time, prove a boon to the local economy.

The current proposal for a marine reserve, as laid out by the Blue Halo group would deprive the people of Bermuda of such a potential windfall and would be tantamount to stealing from future generations.

I would not like to have history record that I was involved in such a travesty.

My personal experience, both in business and government has taught me that many a good thought, when rushed into action, often for emotional/political reasons, will, in most cases be regretted upon reflection.

This marine park proposal is being rushed as a result of overseas pressures, and needs to be completely re-examined. The Government needs to slow down, and think through the consequences of any such action before it is too late.

Government must not be bullied into making this decision on a Marine Park.

Bermuda deserves better. Let us not rush into a blind alley, from where there is little chance of returning. The Island's economic future depends on wise judgment, and not emotionalism, in this all-important matter.

The Hon. David J. Saul, Ph.D., J.P. is a former Premier and Minister of Finance of Bermuda. He is a director of the underwater exploration company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc.

Photo supplied by The Pew Charitable Trusts Bermuda Blue Halo: The Pew Environment Group's Global Ocean Legacy Program is working with the government of Bermuda, nongovernmental organizations, and scientists to establish the “Bermuda Blue Halo.” This very large, no-take marine reserve would protect the Sargasso Sea, and the marine life that depends on it, within Bermuda's territorial waters.
Pushing the project: Dr Richard Rockefeller, of the Sargasso Sea Alliance, Oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle and Jay Nelson, Director of the Pew Environmental Group's Global Ocean Legacy Project have visited the Island to talk about the Bermuda Blue Halo project. ( Photo by Glenn Tucker )

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Published October 02, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 01, 2013 at 5:15 pm)

Misguided thinking and economic suicide

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