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2018 oiled bird sightings highest in four years for Newfoundland and Labrador

Towards the end of the year, this oiled long-tailed duck was found by hunter Christopher Angell in the Carmanville area.
Towards the end of the year, this oiled long-tailed duck was found by hunter Christopher Angell in the Carmanville area. - Contributed

Thirteen reported this year, but wildlife service says sightings have declined overall

CARMANVILLE, N.L.

Despite the highest number of oiled bird sightings since 2013, a representative with the Canadian Wildlife Service says there is no cause for alarm.
On Dec. 28, hunter Christopher Angell posted pictures of an oiled long-tailed duck to social media. Angell shot the duck near the Carmanville/Noggin Cove area. He says it was the only duck he saw that day. Angell’s Facebook post showed photos with oil soaked through the duck’s feathers and into its skin.
Besides a turr covered in oil Angell had found a couple years back, it was the first oiled duck he had come across recently.
A few commenters on the Facebook post wondered if the Nov. 16 SeaRose oil spill, which saw 250,000 litres of oil leak into the Atlantic Ocean 300 kilometres off the coast of St. John’s, had anything to do with it, but experts say likely not.
“When a bird becomes oiled, it’s really a death sentence for them,” said Garry Donaldson, manager of wildlife assessment and protected areas for the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Atlantic region. “They become hypothermic rather quickly so it would be unlikely this duck would survive long.
“And given the spill trajectory, which was south of the offshore installation, it’s unlikely they would have encountered that oil. Long-tailed ducks don’t go that far offshore.”

Garry Donaldson, manager of wildlife assessment and protected areas for the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Atlantic region.
Garry Donaldson, manager of wildlife assessment and protected areas for the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Atlantic region.

Number of sightings
According to data gathered from the Canadian Wildlife Service, in the province there were 13 reported sightings of oiled seabirds this year. Of these 13, six were common eiders, four seagulls, one long-tailed duck, one murre and one black guillemot.
It is the highest number of oiled bird sightings since 2013, when 20 oiled birds were sighted. In 2017 there were no reported sightings, with three in 2016, eight in 2015 and one in 2014.
Ian Jones, a Memorial University professor with the Department of Biology, specializes in the ecology and biology of seabirds. Jones says November and December are the months when oiled bird sightings most typically occur, and that overall it appears there are fewer oiled bird sightings now than in the 1980s-90s.
“There are indications we’re not seeing as many, but it is a kind of episodic phenomenon. Often a couple years will go by and nothing will happen, and all of a sudden — oiled birds will appear again,” Jones said. “The distribution of birds in the sea is highly variable; there can be tens of thousands in a particular spot and none at another. So there can be large spills that kill small numbers of birds and vice versa.
“It’s difficult to predict, but the thing to keep in mind is there is a worst-case scenario that a small leak of oil can kill many birds if the conditions are just right, or just wrong rather.”
While the number of sightings reported this past year is higher than other recent years, Donaldson says in the bigger picture, 13 sightings is still a relatively low number.

“There are methods of essentially fingerprinting the oil, and finding out what type of oil it is can help determine the origin. Oil here is in two categories — fuel oil, or Bunker C, which is a heavy oil used in large vessels that can get spilled or dumped, and crude oil, with tankers carrying crude oil in offshore extraction activities.”

-Ian Jones, Memorial University professor with the Department of Biology


“Before we enacted the birds oiled at sea legislation — that includes finding ship owners that discharge oil illegally — the number of oil birds has dropped dramatically,” he said. “Before that the number of birds found oiled in Newfoundland was roughly 100 a year. With one year, 2007, we exceeded 250 birds with no obvious incidents reported to account for that number.”
According to the “Birds oiled at sea” report from the Department of Environment and Climate Change, in 2008 the National Aerial Surveillance monitored close to 10,000 vessels in Canadian waters. After a pilot project from 2000-03, the Canadian government launched this program to monitor pollution and oil activity in the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. In that year alone, 183 pollution spills were detected and several prosecutions resulted in fines as high as $80,000.
Donaldson says legislation like this has played a major role in the decline of oiled bird sightings.
Tracing the origin
Both Donaldson and Jones agree that uncovering the origin of oil on a bird is a difficult task. If an oiled seabird can be brought in for testing, Jones says the type of oil on the bird can be identified.

“Oil itself can travel long distances and some birds can travel long distances after they get oiled. Speculation about whether an oiled bird is the result of offshore activity is really just speculation until we have some tests.”

-Ian Jones, Memorial University professor with the Department of Biology


“There are methods of essentially fingerprinting the oil, and finding out what type of oil it is can help determine the origin,” said Jones. “Oil here is in two categories — fuel oil, or Bunker C, which is a heavy oil used in large vessels that can get spilled or dumped, and crude oil, with tankers carrying crude oil in offshore extraction activities.”
Of the 13 sightings this December, Donaldson says the long-tailed duck found near Carmanville is the only one that was shot. The others were only sightings, and none have been brought in for testing.
Angell had thrown away the duck after tracking it down. In light of the response his post had on social media, he wished he had kept the bird to see if the oil’s origin could be traced.
“Oil itself can travel long distances and some birds can travel long distances after they get oiled,” said Jones. “Speculation about whether an oiled bird is the result of offshore activity is really just speculation until we have some tests.”
Donaldson says the Canadian Wildlife Service ultimately hopes to eliminate the number of oiled birds as much as possible, and he encourages people to report oiled wildlife to the National Environmental Emergencies Centre at 1-866-283-2333.

Have you spotted any oiled birds?

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