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:

  • Canada Shipping Act, 2001
  • Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999
  • Fisheries Act
  • Species at Risk Act

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

  • Environment and Climate Change Canada solicits project proposals from eligible groups and ensures that projects are carried out in a cost-effective, technically feasible and scientifically sound manner.
  • Monetary awards are used to fund projects that focus on environmental restoration and improvement, research and development, and education and awareness related to environmental restoration and compliance with regulations.
  • All projects must meet program criteria. Funds are disbursed in the geographic region (local area, region, province or territory) where the incident occurred.
  • Priority is given to restoration projects that address the damage caused by the original incident. Funds are disbursed promptly to recipients capable of delivering projects with strong environmental results.

Eligible recipients

  • Non-governmental organizations
  • Universities and academic institutions
  • Aboriginal groups
  • Provinces, territories and municipalities

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:

  • The 'Polluter Pays' Principle
  • Applicant's Guide

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 birdsFootnote 1. 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 worldFootnote 2. 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.Footnote 3. 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 vesselsFootnote 4 The proportion of beached birds found during these surveys with oiled feathers varied substantially from year-to-year, ranging from 31% to 80%Footnote 5.

A more recent analysis that includes data from 1984-2006, showed a similar oiling rate of 69% in winter, and no apparent trendFootnote 19. 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)Footnote 19.

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:

  • Most seabirds are killed during the winter months, particularly November to March, when marine waters are cold and severe winter weather puts added stress on seabirds, and when large numbers of several seabird species that are vulnerable to oil over-winter in the waters of Atlantic CanadaFootnote 6.
  • Although at least 20 seabird species are known to be killed by oil in waters of Atlantic CanadaFootnote 7, the species most commonly found oiled on surveys are (in decreasing order) Thick-billed Murres, Common Murres and DovekiesFootnote 8. Together, these made up over 80% of the oiled birds recorded on the Avalon beached bird survey during the winter monthsFootnote 8.
  • Other oiled birds regularly encountered on that survey include Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, Black Guillemots, Common Eiders, Atlantic Puffins, Northern Gannets and Long-tailed Ducks (or Oldsquaw)Footnote 8. Common and Red-throated Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Greater Shearwaters are also regularly killed by oil in Atlantic CanadaFootnote 7.

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:

  • the number of oiled birds found washed ashore on beaches,
  • the length of time that carcasses of oiled birds remain on a beach,
  • the length of time that an oiled bird carcass floats at sea before sinking,
  • the proportion of those birds that die at sea which drift towards shore, and
  • the size of the ocean area being considered, where ship-source oil pollution and seabirds overlap, resulting in the risk of oiling to seabirds.

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 2000-01Footnote 19. 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 NewfoundlandFootnote 9. 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 MurresFootnote 10.

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 pairsFootnote 11 - and our knowledge of murre life history and survival from detailed studies at Canadian colonies, particularly in northern Hudson BayFootnote 12.

  • Wiese estimated that in the absence of any oil-related mortality, the Canadian Thick-billed Murre population could grow appreciably, at an average rate of about 3.5%/year, even with present levels of hunting in NewfoundlandFootnote 13.
  • He estimated that oil-related mortality reduces the growth rate of harvested murre populations to about 1%/year, removing most of its growth potentialFootnote 12. The population thus has little buffer to withstand the effects of occasional high mortality. This includes natural losses, as may occur when stormy winters or heavy pack-ice make feeding difficult, or the impact of occasional large accidental oil spills of the type that occurred following the wrecks of the ArrowFootnote 14 and the KuridistanFootnote 15, when tens of thousands of birds may die.

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 2000-01Footnote 19. 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 seaFootnote 16. 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 annuallyFootnote 17). 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 annuallyFootnote 18).

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:


Footnote 1

Page 23 in: Chardine, J.W. 1995. The distribution and abundance of aquatic birds in Canada in relation to the threat of oil pollution. Pp. 23-36 in: L. Frink ed., Wildlife and Oil Spills: Response, Research, Contingency Planning. Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, Newark, Delaware, 182 pp.

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Footnote 2

Page 47 in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Estimation and impacts of seabird mortality from chronic marine oil pollution off the coast of Newfoundland. Ph.D. Thesis, Dept. Biology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, 321 pp.

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Footnote 3

Page 38 (Table 2.1) in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Wiese, F.K., and P. C. Ryan. 2003. The extent of chronic marine oil pollution in southeastern Newfoundland waters assessed through beached bird surveys 1984-1999. Marine Pollution Bulletin 46: 1090-1101.

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Footnote 4

Page ii in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Footnote 5

Page 49 in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Wiese, F.K., and P. C. Ryan (2003).

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Footnote 6

Page 45 (Figure 2.9) in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Wiese, F.K., and P. C. Ryan (2003).

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Footnote 7

several sources, including the authors' personal observations of beached birds, and: Pages 23-24 (Table 5) in: Piatt, J.F., R.D. Elliot, A. MacCharles. 1985. Marine Birds and Oil Pollution. Memorial University of Newfoundland. Nfld. Institute for Cold Oceans Science Report 105, 63 pp.

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Footnote 8

Page 46 (Table 2.2) in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Wiese, F.K., and P. C. Ryan (2003).

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Footnote 9

Page 226 in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Wiese, F. K. and G. J. Robertson. 2004. Assessing seabird mortality from chronic oil discharges at sea. Journal of Wildlife Management 68: 627-638.

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Footnote 10

Page 243 in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Wiese and Robertson (2004).

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Footnote 11

Page 257 (Table 8.1) in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Page 151 in: Gaston. A. J. and I. L. Jones. 1998. The auks. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K.

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Footnote 12

The results of Canadian Wildlife Service studies at Coats Island, Nunavut, including: Gaston, A.J., L.N. de Forest, G. Donaldson and D.G. Noble. 1994. Population parameters of Thick-billed Murres at Coats Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. Condor 96: 935-948. Gaston, A.J. and J.M. Hipfner. 2000. The Thick-billed Murre Uria lomvia. In: A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America No. 497. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gaston, A.J. 2002. Studies of high-latitude seabirds. 5. Monitoring Thick-billed Murres in the eastern Canadian Arctic, 1976-2000. W. A. Montevecchi, ed. Canadian Wildlife Service Occasional Paper 106, 59 pp.

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Footnote 13

Page 268-269 (Table 8.2) in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Wiese, F. K., G. J. Robertson and A. J. Gaston. 2004. Impacts of chronic marine oil pollution and the murre hunt in Newfoundland on thick-billed murre <em lang="la">Uria lomvia</em> populations in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Biological Conservation 116: 205-216.

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Footnote 14

Described in: Brown, R.G.B., D.I. Gillespie, A.R. Lock, P.A. Pearce and G.H. Watson. 1973. Bird mortality from oil slicks off eastern Canada, February-April 1970. Can. Field-Naturalist. 87:225-234.

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Footnote 15

Described in: Brown, R.G.B. and B.C. Johnson. 1980. The effects of Kurdistan oil on seabirds. Pp. 203-208 In Scientific studies during the Kurdistan tanker incident: Proceedings of a workshop. June 26-27 1979. (J.H. Vandermeulen, ed.) B.I.O. Report series BI-R-80-3.

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Footnote 16

Page 239 in: Wiese, Francis K. 2002. Ph.D. Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Footnote 17

Page 13 in: Chardine, J.W., B.T. Collins, R.D. Elliot, H. Levesque and P.C. Ryan. 1999. Trends in the annual harvest of murres in Newfoundland and Labrador. Bird Trends 7:11-14.

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Footnote 18

Page 344 in: Piatt, J.F. and D.N. Nettleship. 1987. Incidental catch of marine birds and mammals in fishing nets off Newfoundland, Canada. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 18:344-349.

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Footnote 19

Wilhelm, S. I. G. J. Robertson, P. C. Ryan, S. Tobin and R. D. Elliot. 2009. Re-evaluating the use of beached bird oiling rates to assess long-term trends in chronic oil pollution. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58: 249-255.

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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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