Business leaders, Republican and Democratic officials, environmentalists and busloads of high school students gathered at Cape May Convention Hall March 18, in opposition to offshore oil exploration.
With the beach and ocean behind them, speaker after speaker decried federal plans to explore for oil along the Atlantic Coast, and the seismic testing that uses sound waves to explore the ocean floor. Speakers said the intensity of the blast does serious harm to marine mammals and other sea life.
The Trump administration is set to release a five-year plan for federal waters, expected to expand the areas available for offshore drilling. In November, federal officials issued authorization for five companies to use sound to search for oil. The authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act allow for the incidental harassment of otherwise protected marine mammals, but not their deliberate injury.
While debate continues nationally on the future of fossil fuels, on a sunny, breezy day on Cape May’s beachfront the message from South Jersey was clear – leave our ocean alone. Several of the speakers mentioned the diverse voices gathered at the event.
They included some political opponents, such as Lower Township Mayor Erik Simonsen, who, along with Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan, is set to challenge incumbent Democrats Bruce Land and Matthew Milam in November. The incumbents spoke at the event. Land and Simonsen shook hands as the crowd broke up.
The Cape May County Chamber of Commerce organized the event with Clean Ocean Action and other advocacy groups. In recent years, similar events have been held in Avalon and Ocean City. Vicki Clark, president, Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that this was her first time introducing U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-2nd) as a member of Congress.
The Democrat was elected in 2018, leaving his seat in the state Senate. His Republican predecessor, Frank LoBiondo, also regularly spoke against oil exploration off New Jersey’s coast.
Van Drew pointed to efforts in Trenton to require New Jersey’s approval for any offshore facilities. He also announced a plan for legislation in the House of Representatives to ban drilling on the East and West coasts.
He described seismic testing as extremely damaging to wildlife.
“It’s about time we take a stand. And if you want to talk the talk you’ve got to walk the walk and we are doing our darned best to walk the walk and really stand up and do what’s right here,” he said.
Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the county has opposed offshore drilling for decades. He described commercial and sports fishing as major industries, bringing in millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
“I’m just going to say this, who profits? Somebody’s got to start asking the question of just who profits here,” he said.
Jeff Stewart, a captain on the Cape May Whale Watcher, said seismic testing would drive marine mammals and fish from the coastline. Marine mammals are extraordinarily sensitive to sound, using it to communicate and in some cases find their way. He and others said the seismic testing amounts to an incredible blast of noise through the underwater quiet.
“It’s torture for marine mammals. It’s torture for the fish. It’s bad for all of us,” he said. “Let’s beat this.”
Lower Cape May Regional High School science teacher Jeff Martin also spoke at the event. He teaches electives in oceanography and marine science. He said he let his students know about the event but didn’t pressure anyone into attending. His students were among the most engaged in the crowd outside Convention Hall, arriving by the busload. Martin pointed out that the students were all born in the 21st century.
“There’s a lot of negative talk about young people today, which I don’t really get. They’re incredible. They’re plugged in but they’re also very sensitive, very passionate about what they believe in,” he said, saying the students include future engineers, future scientists, and future problem solvers.
Sandra Meola of New Jersey Audubon described the federal oil exploration plans as a threat to wildlife, mentioning the migrating birds that depend on beaches like those in Cape May.
“There is truth in science. Climate change is real and it’s here. It’s demonstrated right here in our coastal communities. We must adapt in ways that protect the people and wildlife that depend on the environment. Our oceans and vulnerable coastal communities are no place for fossil fuel development,” Meola said.
Other speakers included Cape May Mayor Clarence Lear, Sen. Robert Andrzejczak and a representative of Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Cindy Zipf of Clean Ocean Action and more. Zipf described seismic testing as the “gateway drug” that leads to oil drilling in the ocean.
“You’re here today because you know that the federal administration is determined to open the Atlantic Ocean to offshore oil drilling and the first step in that process is seismic testing,” said Clark. The method hurts marine life, harms the fishing industry, and disrupts coastal economies, she said.
According to Clark, the blast may have an impact from Cape May to Cape Canaveral. Clark said Cape May County and all of New Jersey has too much at risk for locals to be silent.
“Seismic testing will be devastating to all of us, here in New Jersey and all along the Atlantic Coast,” she said, stating it’s not a business versus environment issue or a Democratic or Republican issue.