By Anne Murray
It’s a dilemma that forward-thinking, environmentally conscious people do not want to face: Will moving toward carbon-free energy sources mean disrupting bird migration routes and having a negative impact on wildlife populations?
This weekend sees the July 12 deadline for public comments on the massive NaiKun wind farm proposed for Hecate Strait. The initial phase proposes 110 wind turbines spaced over 100 square kilometres generating 396 megawatts—the first offshore wind farm in British Columbia, located in shallow water immediately east of Naikoon Provincial Park in Haida Gwaii. The project is welcomed by some northerners as an opportunity for employment and a big step forward in sustainable energy generation. After all, wind is something that Hecate Strait does rather well.
The problem arises, however, that this exact location, the shallow water around McIntyre Beach and Rose Spit, is a designated important bird area under the BirdLife International program that lists critical sites for bird populations in over 200 countries worldwide. Millions of migrating birds pass through this IBA every spring and fall, including shorebirds, diving and dabbling ducks, geese, sea birds, loons, and grebes. The footprint of the proposed NaiKun wind farm, close to shore in shallow water, is a prime feeding and staging area for many species of birds, including large numbers of sea ducks, such as black and white-winged scoter. According to recent Environment Canada telemetry studies, large numbers of black scoter stage for up to a month in this area during spring migration (curiously, the Environment Canada data was not available to be included in the environmental assessment report).
The presence of the documented important bird area, and three others affected by the extended infrastructure of the wind farm, places the NaiKun proposal in the highest Category 4 level of sensitivity, according to Environment Canada’s guidelines for wind farms, since it includes a very large number of turbines located in or near an important bird area. Category 4 sensitivity indicates that an alternate site should be considered. Similarly, BirdLife International’s position on wind farms recommends complete avoidance of bird migration hot spots and important bird areas under the precautionary principle.
Disturbance to birds is not limited to the risk of mortality and injury from rotating turbines. Studies in Europe show that birds often fly around the array of turbines, moving away from previous feeding areas or flight paths. The constant disturbance and/or lack of access to prime feeding areas can result in diminished fitness, lower breeding success, or other stresses on the population, particularly for birds in the middle of their long migrations.
As well as birds, the marine waters of Hecate Strait are rich in whales, sea lions, porpoises, fish, and crabs. These are wildlife with high economic as well as ecological value. The environmental assessment lists 35 species of marine mammals that potentially exist in the area, including four populations of killer whales (orcas), but it does not mention that whale watching generates $108 million a year in B.C. (according to a 2003 Fisheries and Oceans Canada fact sheet) and that it has been a significant source of visitor growth in the last two decades, providing employment and foreign currency for many coastal towns. Similarly, the fishing industry is a source of valuable employment and dollars for many northerners. Crab and sablefish fishers have been among those writing in with critiques of the studies and concerns over the location.
The Haida people and other islanders are faced with some difficult choices in deciding whether to accept this large wind farm in their offshore waters. It is essentially a giant experiment in action. Although the proponents claim that no significant effects on marine mammals, birds, or marine ecology have been identified, they admit: “Continued monitoring during and after construction of the proposed wind farm will add much to the existing knowledge base, providing ecological information essential to advancing our understanding of marine mammals and associated environmental interactions of large offshore developments.”
There is a strong case for the precautionary principle and a reconsideration of location for our first offshore wind farm. You can comment on the environmental assessment until midnight on Sunday (July 12) by visiting the Environmental Assessment Office’s Web site and looking at the documentation for the NaiKun Offshore Wind Energy Project.