ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – The small nocturnal birds known as Leach’s storm petrels are a telling symbol of ocean health. But they’ve vanished in the millions since offshore oil production started 20 years ago in the North Atlantic east of St. John’s, N.L., and no one’s sure why.
Seabird specialist Bill Montevecchi of Memorial University of Newfoundland says it’s high time potential links were studied. He’s among researchers who say regulators have failed to require independent, scientific analysis of a drastic decline within the world’s largest colony at Baccalieu Island.
It’s down about 40 per cent, or more than three million birds.
“We know these birds are attracted to the flares, we know they’re attracted to the platforms,” Montevecchi said of the four major offshore oil sites operating within a short flight.
“What are we doing to monitor them? Nothing of any consequence. It’s shameful. It’s appalling that we would be in this circumstance.”
Biologist Gail Fraser of York University agreed there’s a glaring lack of consistent scientific data that could help analyze the role of artificial light at Hibernia, Terra Nova, White Rose and now the Hebron site about 350 kilometres southeast of St. John’s.
The federal-provincial regulator doesn’t require all operators to assess how often the birds are hurt or killed when they get stranded, collide with equipment, or fly into burning flares, she said in an interview.
“It has been an ongoing issue for decades and the operators are not systematically collecting data that can provide us with an idea of how serious the impact of artificial lighting can be.”
The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) should require all sites to use light deflectors and allow independent observers on production platforms, Fraser said.
“Seabirds play an important function in the ocean’s ecosystems and they’re under threat by a wide variety of human activities. Offshore oil is one of those activities, and the operators are obligated to understand what the impacts are on those seabirds.”
The board said in a written statement that it does regular environmental audits offshore. It also requires operators to minimize lights where possible to deter seabirds, and to check with the board before use of flares so migration patterns are considered.
“Drilling rigs have personnel on board who monitor weather and sightings of seabirds and other marine mammals,” the statement said. And while the board would not object to third-party observers on offshore vessels or installations, “full-time observers of industrial operations are typically deployed only when there is evidence of pervasive and flagrant disregard for the regulatory system and/or persistently poor operating practices.”
It’s a curious stance, Fraser said.
“The fishing industry has observers,” she noted.
Different treatment of offshore oil operators suggests “failed regulatory governance,” says a paper Fraser co-authored that will appear next year in “Ocean Yearbook,” an annual peer-reviewed journal on marine oversight.
“I think there is failed regulatory governance because the C-NLOPB is in charge of both promoting offshore oil and regulating it,” she explained.
“People who are on those rigs have a priority to extract oil safely …. Their priority is not to understand the environmental impacts.”
The regulator has ignored Environment Canada requests in 2005 and 2010 for systematic seabird monitoring programs, Fraser says in the paper.
“This problem is now urgent given ongoing declines in seabird species, particularly species most at risk from artificial light.”
Sabina Wilhelm, a biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the department works with oil companies to ease those risks.
“But, really, there is a huge need to do research because we really don’t have a means right now to quantify any mortality that is associated with flaring and what its impact is on the storm petrel population,” she said in an interview. “That’s just an unknown for us.”
Wilhelm said the birds spend winters off southern and western Africa along with Brazil, where they may also be affected by oil and gas development. They are also hunted in huge numbers by gulls and tend to have high mercury content, she added.
“We are really trying to figure out what’s going on,” Wilhelm said of the population decline.
Montevecchi said there’s no time to waste.
“They just don’t want people who aren’t working for them to be making observations. But the fact of the matter is, it’s not their ocean.
“It’s our ocean, and that’s the reason there should be independent observers out there.”
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