Birds oiled at sea

Table of contents

A chronic but mostly hidden problem

Chronic oil pollution coming from ships travelling off Canada's coasts causes hundreds of thousands of seabirds to die every year. In the late 1990s, an estimated 300,000 birds were killed every year off of Newfoundland's coast. Equivalent numbers may be dying annually on the Pacific coast because of this illegal activity.

Canada’s marine waters are some of the most important places for seabirds in the world. At all times of the year there are tens of millions of birds in Canada's marine waters, attracted by abundant food sources and ideal breeding conditions. About 15 species of seabirds are common on the east coast and about 11 species are common on the west coast.

All of the species present on both coasts are migratory species, some of which travel great distances each year from the southern oceans or across the northern oceans. Rare species also visit our coasts occasionally.

Most of the seabirds off the east coast live in waters that are criss-crossed by the busiest shipping lanes off North America, largely due to the ship traffic with Europe as well as fishing vessels working in Canada's abundant fishing grounds. Unfortunately the owners, captains and crews of some of these ships knowingly allow the dumping of oily ship wastes into the ocean where they harm the seabirds and other marine animals.

Oil does not mix with water, but it is readily absorbed into birds' feathers. When that happens it decreases the birds' insulation from the cold, as well as their waterproofing and buoyancy. This inevitably leads to their death by hypothermia or starvation. Just one spot of oil can do this; therefore an oiled bird becomes a dead bird Canada’s cold ocean waters.

On the east coast, and particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador, a small percentage of the dying or dead oiled birds wash ashore. Accordingly, people have been aware of the problem there for many years. On the west coast this is still a hidden and practically unknown problem. Because of the wind, tide and ocean currents, most birds that become oiled from the vessels' wastes sink at sea long before they can wash ashore.

What the Government of Canada is doing about the problem

Surveillance - Aircraft and satellite

The Government of Canada has developed an integrated surveillance system that uses aircraft and satellites to monitor oil pollution on our three oceans and the Great Lakes.

In 2005, the Government of Canada increased its investment in aerial surveillance of marine oil pollution. This resulted in Transport Canada aircraft operating full-time on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, based in Moncton and Vancouver respectively. A third aircraft alternates between Arctic patrols during the summer months and patrols over the Great Lakes area in the winter. These aircraft carry trained Pollution Prevention Officers, from both Transport Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada. With highly sophisticated remote sensing equipment onboard, they can detect marine oil pollution in virtually all weather conditions.

Following a pilot project from 2000 to 2003, an operational program was launched using Canada’s RadarSat images to detect oil at sea. This function is imbedded within Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Canadian Ice Service which uses the same satellite images to monitor ice conditions across Canada. Satellite images are taken of oceans (Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic) as well as the Great Lakes and Gulf of St. Lawrence. The surveillance system is integrated within Government of Canada operations so that if oil at sea is detected on a satellite image, the pollution aircraft can be informed of the location and the visual confirmation obtained.

In 2008, the National Aerial Surveillance Program (NASP) visually monitored close to 10,000 vessels in Canada's three oceans and tracked an additional 77,000. As a result of that effort, and with the assistance of ongoing RadarSat satellite surveillance provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada, 183 pollution spills were detected in Canadian waters. Several prosecutions were subsequently registered with fines reaching as high as $80,000.


For years, two Government of Canada departments have been working together and have been enforcing federal legislation to charge and fine offenders for polluting our marine environments. Environment and Climate Change Canada enforces the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (1999), and the pollution-prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act. Transport Canada applies the Canada Shipping Act. The Canadian Coast Guard supports efforts by responding to marine pollution incidents. These departments investigate illegal activity and prosecute ships, ships' owners, captains and crews that have illegally deposited oil in Canada's waters. Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Enforcement Branch also works closely with INTERPOL’s Environmental Crimes Committee to combat this problem internationally.

Restoration - Environmental Damages Fund

The Environmental Damages Fund (EDF) follows the Polluter Pays Principle to help ensure that those who cause damage to the environment take responsibility for their actions. Created by the Government of Canada in 1995, the Environmental Damages Fund is administered by Environment and Climate Change Canada to provide a way of directing funds received as a result of fines, court orders and voluntary payments to priority projects that will benefit our natural environment.

How funds are directed

The majority of funds are directed to the Environmental Damages Fund through statutory fines and court-ordered payments. A number of federal statutes authorize discretionary court orders that have been used to direct monies to the Environmental Damages Fund, for example:

All fines collected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 must be directed to the Environmental Damages Fund, by virtue of subsection 13(6) of the Act.

How projects are funded

Eligible recipients

In recent years, the Environmental Damages Fund has received funding resulting from several oil related incidents. In the Atlantic Region, there have been eight awards since 2004 totalling $312,500 in funding. This funding resulted from successful prosecutions under the Canada Shipping Act, the Canada Newfoundland Accord Implementation Act, and the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Resources Accord Implementation Act. In Prairie and Northern Region a $10,000 award was received in 2008 following a successful prosecution under the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. And in Pacific and Yukon Region $8,500 has been received since 2000 under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 and the Canada Shipping Act.

Visit the following documents for more information on the Environmental Damages Fund:

Migratory Bird Monitoring

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, along with its partners, continues to monitor beached birds through existing surveys across the country. In parts of the country where the impacts have not been assessed (e.g. the Gulf of St. Lawrence), Environment and Climate Change Canada is developing strategies to assess chronic oil pollution and its impacts on marine birds.

Since 2005, results from studies on the east coast of Canada are indicating a decline in the number of oiled birds coming to shore. Although many factors can reduce the numbers of oiled birds coming to shore, including changing winds and weather, these results may suggest oiling of marine birds on the east coast may be beginning to decline. A more thorough evaluation is planned for 2011-2012.

For more information

The impact of oil at sea on seabirds in Atlantic Canada (November 2002)

A. Introduction - Seabirds and oil in Atlantic Canada waters

Oil released at sea, whether from chronic operational discharges or accidental spills, can directly kill any seabird that it touches on the sea surface. This oiling causes severe distress for individual birds and can have significant impacts at the population level. Marine oil pollution from chronic operational discharges is both illegal and preventable. The costs of taking appropriate action to prevent such discharges make it important to quantify, to the degree possible, the severe ecological consequences of continuing to release oil into the sea.

Atlantic Canada is an important crossroads for seabirds, where productive marine waters support the tens of millions of birdsFootnote1. Huge numbers of birds from Newfoundland breeding colonies overlap with millions of seasonal visitors - wintering birds from colonies in Arctic Canada and Europe and from the south Atlantic. The same waters serve as commercial fishing grounds and major shipping lanes linking Europe and North America. Illegal Operational discharges of oil from the huge numbers of vessels present throughout the year continue to put millions of Atlantic Canada's seabirds at risk.

B. Surveys of beached birds in Atlantic Canada

Assessing the impact of this oil on seabird populations requires a knowledge of the number of birds of each species that are killed by oil at sea. This information is difficult to obtain in Atlantic Canada, where major currents and winds usually carry oiled birds away from land, and where there may be little direct evidence of large offshore kills of seabirds. However, some dead seabirds do wash ashore along the southern coast of the Avalon Peninsula in southeastern Newfoundland. Regular beached-bird surveys conducted there monthly since 1984, and almost weekly from 1998 to 2001, provide the best indication in Atlantic Canada of the numbers of seabirds killed by oil at sea.

These surveys indicate that the incidence of chronic oil pollution along the coast of southeastern Newfoundland is among the highest in worldFootnote2. More than 60% of all dead birds found over from 1984-1999 had oil on their feathers - 74% during the last five years of this time period.Footnote3. However, there was no overall upward or downward trend over this period in the number of oiled birds, or the oiling rate, which is most reliably indicated by the number of oiled birds found each year per kilometer of beach that was surveyed. Most oil on the seabirds' feathers was heavy fuel oil mixed with lubricants, typical of the mixture found in the engine room bilges of large vesselsFootnote4 The proportion of beached birds found during these surveys with oiled feathers varied substantially from year-to-year, ranging from 31% to 80%Footnote5.

A more recent analysis that includes data from 1984-2006, showed a similar oiling rate of 69% in winter, and no apparent trendFootnote19. However, this study found that the numbers of oiled birds recorded has significantly declined from 1984-2006, and the reason that oiling rates remain high is that other mortality factors other than oiling have declined (e.g. hunting crippling losses and fisheries bycatch)Footnote19.

The population impacts considered in this scientific assessment are based largely on the results of these surveys, considered in the context of other information on seabird numbers, the incidence and location of oil spills, the numbers of birds killed by specific oiling incidents, and the ecology and population dynamics of the seabird species affected.

C. Birds killed by oil at sea

Based on the Avalon beached-bird survey results, other short-term beached-bird surveys in Atlantic Canada, and observations of birds directly killed by known oiling incidents, we can make the following general statements about the impacts of chronic operational oil discharges:

D. Assessing the numbers of seabirds killed by oil at sea

Only a small proportion of birds killed by oil are actually found on shore, because many never reach land, instead being carried offshore or sinking. Others may reach the shore but are never found, instead becoming buried in the beach, decomposing or being carried off by scavengers. Estimates of the actual number of birds dying at sea are derived using an approach that sequentially builds in the following information:

For the waters off southeastern Newfoundland, the many variables that must be considered to complete these complicated calculations have been assembled for the species most commonly found oiled - the Thick-billed Murre, or turr. This species breeds in colonies in the eastern Canadian Arctic and western Greenland, and is one of the most numerous wintering seabirds in waters off Newfoundland and northern Nova Scotia. It is regionally important as the most common species taken in the Newfoundland murre hunt.

E. The estimated number of Thick-billed Murres killed by oil

Estimates were derived using this approach by Dr. Francis Wiese formerly of Memorial University of Newfoundland, from data collected in 1998-99 to 2000-01Footnote19. He estimated that between 180,000 and 250,000 Thick-billed Murres were killed each winter from chronic oil pollution in waters off southeastern Newfoundland, within an area encompassing the adjacent Grand Banks directly south of NewfoundlandFootnote9. However, recognizing the degree of uncertainty in several of the factors used in these calculations, he advises using an conservative estimate of about 200,000 Thick-billed MurresFootnote10.

F. The impact of these losses on Thick-billed Murre populations

The effect of this level of mortality on Thick-billed Murre populations can be calculated, based on our estimates of the size of the population breeding in Canada's eastern Arctic - about 2,000,000 breeding pairsFootnote11 - and our knowledge of murre life history and survival from detailed studies at Canadian colonies, particularly in northern Hudson BayFootnote12.

G. Mortality of other seabird species

Wiese also estimated that about 25,000 to 40,000 Common Murres and 60-80,000 Dovekies may have been killed each winter by oil off southeastern Newfoundland, during 1998-99 to 2000-01Footnote19. Because it is so difficult to quantify the numbers of other species killed off southeastern Newfoundland, and to assess oil-related mortality off the Maritime provinces, estimates cannot be made for other species. However, it is clear that death by oiling at sea can significantly depress population numbers and population growth for long-lived seabird species, particularly when mortality levels are sustained, adults are impacted or species with small populations are affected.

H. Overall numbers of seabirds killed each year

Given the uncertainties in assessing numbers of birds killed by oil when based on the results of beached-bird surveys, and the annual variation in the numbers of birds that succumb to oil, it is prudent to use a conservative but realistic estimate of the minimum number killed. A scientifically-defensible minimum estimate of this type can be derived by using minimum values of Wiese's estimates for murres and dovekies killed off Newfoundland, expanding the area considered to include other areas of Atlantic Canada where ship-source oil pollution and wintering populations of seabirds overlap, and extrapolating to include other species of seabirds present during the winter.

Such an approach results in a conservative estimate that about 300,000 seabirds are killed each winter in the waters of Atlantic Canada, by chronic operational discharges of oil at seaFootnote16. This minimum estimate confirms concerns that huge numbers of birds are killed needlessly and illegally in our waters, with appreciable effects on populations of commonly-oiled species such as Thick-billed Murres.

This overall assessment exceeds estimates of the regulated harvest of murres in the Newfoundland murre hunt (about 170,000 to 290,000 birds annuallyFootnote17). It is also significantly higher than the highest estimates of the number of breeding seabirds killed in inshore fishing gear in Newfoundland waters, during peak years in the early 1980s (about 30,000 birds annuallyFootnote18).

I. Sources of information

The above results are based on the following publications, theses and reports, and the observations of biologists and research scientists from the Canadian Wildlife Service and Memorial University of Newfoundland:

Figure 1: RADARSAT-1 - The Terra Nova platform - The oil slick

Figure 1 is a satellite image provided by the Canadian Space Agency using the Canadian satellite RADARSAT-1 that was taken on November 23, 2004.
Figure 1: RADARSAT-1 - The Terra Nova platform - The oil slick
Long description for Figure 1

Two days earlier the Terra Nova offshore production platform had a release of crude oil in the Atlantic Ocean off Insular Newfoundland. The image shows the location of the Hibernia platform in the top left corner, the Terra Nova platform in the centre of the image, and an L-shaped oil slick in the lower right of the image. The 'L' was 10 km long on each side and about 2 km wide.

The size of the slick was verified by ship observers who were responding to the incident. The satellite image is black and white with the platforms and ships in the area showing as bright white and the oil slick as dark grey. The ocean appears as a mixture of light grey.

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