The court action brought in 2009 by some 157 Tobago fisher-folk against the international oil drilling company PetroCanada came to an end in the High Court of Justice on the last Monday.
It ended with the handing over by Attorneys for PetroCanada of a cheque for $6M to Deborah Moore-Miggins, Attorneys for the fishermen.
Each of the fishermen received a cheque for some $37,000 on Sunday. "There were many doubting Thomases who told us we could never get PetroCanada to pay any money. Our lawyer wrote not only PetroCanada but Prime Minister Manning, Chief Secretary London and Minister Vernella Alleyne-Toppin – not one of them helped us," said Johnny Baptiste, the President of the South West Tobago Fishing Association. "In fact some people in the THA actually ridiculed our claim and poked fun at us. They stood by silent while the government gave away our rights to PetroCanada".
Moore-Miggins told the fishermen that the sums received was way short of what they were entitled to but that all the parties had agreed to accept the settlement sum and avoid the further demands of a long and expensive court action. "But this is not the end of your claim, however. It is my decided view that you as citizens of this country can use the mechanisms provided by the Constitution to get compensation from the State and the Tobago House of Assembly for the unfair treatment meted out to you by those state agencies."
Moore-Miggins explained to them that the Constitution guaranteed to each of them the right to property and also the right to equal treatment by a public authority in carrying out its functions.
She further stated that the Government and the THA prior to granting the right to do seismic surveys and drilling for oil in Block 22, ought to have consulted with fishermen as users of the area.
"They should have offered all fishermen of Tobago compensation for the loss of income they would have suffered from the activities of Petro-Canada in the waters. This is what Centrica did recently and it is our court action – not the THA as is claimed – that caused Centrica to pay compensation."
She recalled that from 2005 to 2009 PetroCanada blasted loud airguns in the fishing grounds and this had the effect of disturbing the sensitive spawning process of the fish and even driving them away from the grounds. "It may have even resulted in the loss of fishery in the waters that is being felt even to today."
PetroCanada was also authorized to order fishermen to stay away from the area for days on end and on some occasions fishermen were actually chased out of the fishing grounds causing them to suffer damage to their gear and loss of income. A safety zone around the drilling rig was also established in the waters and fishermen could not enter there.
The rigs actually served as a fish attraction device luring the fish into the safety zone.
"For four years our fishermen could not enjoy the rights they had developed to fish in the area while PetroCanada was allowed free rein. If that does not give rise to a claim for unequal treatment and loss of property then tell me what does."
Moore-Miggins encouraged the men to become active in a fishing association as she intended to file an Equal Opportunities complaint against the government and the THA. The complaint would be on behalf of Tobago's fishing associations and only members of those associations would benefit.