For years, husband and wife Girard and Rita Pomeroy have made their living by fishing together off Merasheen Island in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. This fall, they received training for a very different job, joining a handful of other fishermen in a pilot project to learn about oil spill countermeasures.

Over the next three years, 500 fishermen in 15 communities around the province will receive training on dealing with near and onshore spills.

The program is an initiative of One Ocean, a liaison organization between the fishing and petroleum industries. The group says that the capacity to respond to a major spill has not kept pace with the amount of oil moving around the Newfoundland coastline. “In 1993 [it] was seven million tons. In 2003 that changed to 47 million tons, but there hadn’t been any change in the number of responders,” says Gordon Slade, One Ocean’s executive director.

As production from offshore oilfields soars, tanker traffic into Placentia Bay on Newfoundland’s south coast has increased dramatically. The island-studded bay, which houses an oil refinery and an oil transshipment facility, has about 500 tankers plying its waters annually.

Not surprisingly, Placentia Bay and the adjacent coastline has been identified as the place in Canada most at risk for an oil spill. Such an incident would wreak havoc on the many coastal communities that rely on diverse marine-related industries: valuable fisheries, aquaculture sites and ecotourism operations.

That’s why Girard Pomeroy signed up for the course. He said it’s only a matter of time before an oil spill occurs and he wants to be able to help clean it up. He believes that fishermen’s local knowledge and experience on the water make them ideal oil spill responders. “Fishermen, especially in their local area, they know the tides, the currents, the weather conditions. They’re the best and fastest crowd to clean it up,” he said.

Over the five-day course, covering both in-class and on-water components, fishermen will learn about oil spill behavior and containment, and shoreline cleanup techniques. The course has been developed by Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Marine Institute together with the Canadian Coast Guard and the Eastern Canada Response Corporation. According to One Ocean, the program is a unique model that may be transferable to other coastal regions interested in employing a community-based response to oil spills.