When I imagine a catastrophic oil spill, my mind immediately conjures up pictures of oiled water birds, their feathers dripping with black goo, their beaks gummed with choking, greasy globs, and sad piles of carcasses strewn along once pristine beaches, now impossibly stained and spoilt. So in preparing to speak to the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel Vancouver hearings into the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, I chose to focus on risks to British Columbia’s marine birds.
Our mountainous, maritime province has the greatest biological diversity in Canada and the highest number of bird species. Coastal and offshore waters are rich in life at all scales, from huge fin whales, to orcas, puffins, and salmon, down to the microbial communities of hydrothermal vents. Islands of transcendental beauty grace our inshore waters and guard the mainland from the full might of the Pacific Ocean. The archipelago of Haida Gwaii is Canada’s Galapagos Islands, immensely rich in nesting seabirds and home to unique subspecies. It has the world’s largest breeding colony of ancient murrelets and globally significant colonies of Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets and Leach’s storm-petrel. Kittiwakes, shearwaters, and albatrosses feed in its turbulent waters. In season, thousands of waterfowl, loons, grebes, and shorebirds congregate to feed in the ocean or along the shore, part of life cycles that carry some of these birds far beyond Canadian borders.
Almost the entire coastline of Haida Gwaii is recognized as internationally significant for birds under the Important Bird Areas (IBA) Program. Islands off the mainland coast between Prince Rupert and the northern tip of Vancouver Island are also designated. The IBA Program is a science-based, not-for-profit global initiative of BirdLife International, that monitors and conserves a network of more than 11,000 of the world’s most important places for birds and biodiversity. In order to qualify for IBA global status, a site must support one percent of the world’s population for at least one species. Sites may also be designated for their national importance. The presence of so many globally-significant Important Bird Areas in this area of the coast is most remarkable and should warrant particular interest and care on the part of Enbridge Northern Gateway.
Oil tankers outbound from Kitimat would travel either north past Graham Island, the largest of the Haida Gwaii archipelago, or south past Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Among the many IBAs lying close to these routes are Langara Island, with its breeding seabirds; McIntyre Beach and Rose Spit, an amazingly scenic landscape and bird migration hot spot; Laskeek Bay, where volunteers work tirelessly to protect nesting seabirds from the depredation of introduced rats; Alder Island, where surf and white-winged scoters gather on spring migration and black oystercatchers patrol the shores; and Anthony Island or Skaang Gwaii, a World Heritage Site. Panel witness and Haida Gwaii resident Margo Hearne has seen phenomenal sights over the years, the envy of many southern birdwatchers: 42,000 brant (sea geese) pushing north on spring migration, 700 short-tailed shearwaters flying to Wiah Point, 1,500 black-legged kittiwakes at Pillar Bay, and one incredible day in September 1983, when “a quarter of a million sooty shearwaters swept by Coho Point”.
There are many other areas on the northern B.C. coast that are valuable bird habitat but do not meet the particular requirements for IBA designation. For example, at least 112 species of birds occur in the Kitimat estuary, nearly a quarter of the species found in B.C. The estuary is a stopover for migrating birds flying between Arctic and boreal forest breeding grounds and Central and South American wintering areas. Canada has an obligation through international treaties to conserve and protect these birds.
I believe that the possibility of an oil spill associated with the Northern Gateway project poses a major risk to marine birds. Risk is the probability of an event multiplied by the consequences of the event. The more operations a company has, the greater the overall “portfolio” risk. If the pipeline goes ahead, for years there will be a continual stream of bitumen-carrying tankers traversing wild ocean waters with exceptionally high wildlife value. The portfolio risk of a catastrophic spill is high.
Are Enbridge prepared for this risk? The implications and consequences for marine birds in at least 25 Important Bird Areas that could be impacted by a spill must be considered. Baseline data on birds is lacking, and Enbridge have not done surveys in the “Open Water Areas”. Environment Canada scientists only visit breeding bird colonies every four or five years and there are few volunteer surveyors in such remote parts of the coast. Without baseline data on bird occurrence, oil spill preparedness is ineffective and consequences cannot be measured. Enbridge should undertake detailed modeling on the impact of a catastrophic spill close to one or more IBAs, at a critical time of year. Until this is done, conclusions on oil spill implications for marine birds and their habitats will be incomplete and inadequate.
Even to this day, the shadow of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster lingers in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Baseline data was lacking for that area and subsequent interpretations of post-spill bird numbers varied, given that climate change, warming seas, and introduced species also affect populations. Prior to biomarker studies, which can locate the presence of oil within animal tissues, it was thought that most species had recovered from the spill within a few years. However, harlequin ducks and pigeon guillemots were shown to still have elevated levels of biomarkers linked to oil and are struggling to recover, over 20 years later.
The tipping point of survival for many species is imminent. Seabirds, such as the ancient murrelets, have been decimated by introduced Norwegian rats. Tufted puffins and other fish eaters struggle to survive as fish populations decline. Common murres and pigeon guillemots are frequently drowned in nets. Even a small oil spill could be catastrophic, if located near a breeding colony or feeding congregation. In my view, the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal is an unacceptable risk to B.C.’s internationally-recognized richness and diversity of marine birds. This highly valuable area of Canada’s coast must be protected.
(Although to present to the panel you need to have signed up over a year ago, there are many other ways to voice your opinion on this controversial issue, and many topics to discuss in relationship to Enbridge Northern Gateway’s pipeline proposal. Make democracy work: please speak up on what matters to you.)