Small oil spills can add up to big impacts for sea birds

Report says more monitoring of wildlife needed on offshore oil drilling rigs

Oil in the Gulf of Mexico. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. COAST GUARD.
Oil spills have a devastating impact on sea life,, there’s not enough monitoring to track environmental degradation. Photo via U.S. Coast Guard.
This is an Oiled Thick-billed Murre, Cripple Cove (near Cape Race), Newfoundland November 28, 2004. Credit Photo by Ian L. Jones
This is an oiled thick-billed murre, Cripple Cove (near Cape Race), Newfoundland November 28, 2004. Photo by Ian L. Jones.

Staff Report

It only takes exposure to a teaspoon full of oil to kill some seabirds, but oil drillers off the coast of Canada are failing to adequately monitor small, persistent spills that can lead to chronic pollution and population-level impacts, according to a new study by scientists with York University.

The research published in the international journal, Marine Pollution Bulletin, looked at how offshore oil operators monitored and responded to small spills (less than 1,000 litres) for three production projects off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. It came after authorities failed to respond to three high-profile environmental assessments by Environment Canada that requested impacts on seabirds be monitored following small spills.

“Industry self-monitoring of spills has failed to collect information that would allow researchers to understand the impact of chronic oil spills on seabirds,” said Gail Fraser, of York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. “Many seabird populations are declining and understanding sources of mortality is critical to their conservation.”

Fraser and Vincent Racine looked at reporting and monitoring of spills between 1997 and 2010. The researchers obtained operator spill reports under an Access to Information request. They found there were 220 daytime spills. Reporting on the presence or absence of seabirds was done in only 11 (five percent) of the cases.

The Canadian Wildlife Service’s seabird survey protocol should be followed when a spill occurs, but none of the reports showed evidence of that. The time it takes for a small spill to dissipate was also not in the spill reports and this information is required to estimate possible interactions of oil spilled with seabirds.

“The lack of information on seabirds during oil spills indicates a need for third-party observers,” said Fraser.

The joint federal and provincial Newfoundland & Labrador the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) is responsible for administering environmental assessment follow-up procedures, including monitoring and responses to oil spills. The C-NLOPB has repeatedly rejected calls for independent, third party observers on platforms while seemingly being incapable of enforcing Environment Canada’s recommendations, according to the York University study.

A  “failure to collect information on seabirds during oil spills for 13 years is sufficient to demand the regulatory approach be changed to include third-party observers,” Fraser concluded.

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