Bird Casualties Remain a Mystery After Largest-ever Oil Spill Off Canada’s East Coast

In November, an offshore platform spilled 66,000 gallons of oil into the Atlantic, where millions of seabirds overwinter. But determining a death toll is proving a challenge for biologists.

Three weeks ago, on November 16, hurricane-force winds pummeled the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. About 200 miles offshore in the White Rose oil field, where floating platforms and ships extract oil from a 440-million-barrel pool of fossil fuels beneath the seafloor, waves reached nearly 28 feet. Workers on an offshore oil platform run by Husky Energy, a foreign-controlled company based in Calgary, halted its operations, waiting for the rough weather to pass.

Back on land, Ian Jones, a seabird biologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, secured his property, too. “I tied down all the garbage cans around my house,” he says. But a floating oil platform is not so easily moored; it must have been “bobbing around like a cork” in the waves, he says. 

As the storm began to subside, Husky Energy workers prepared to re-start the platform’s operations. Two hours into the process, however, they noticed a leak: A valve that connects the platform to drilling wells on the ocean floor had failed. Nearly 400 feet below the surface, 66,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the sea.

The oil spill is the largest ever reported in the region. It’s not on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, when BP was responsible for pouring hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, but its timing couldn’t be worse. The winter months bring in millions of seabirds that are vulnerable to even small amounts of oil pollution, says Gail Fraser, associate professor of ecology and avian wildlife management at Toronto’s York University. It’s during this same period, from November to April, that the region’s unpredictable weather makes working conditions on rigs difficult and cleaning up any spilled oil nearly impossible, she says. “This time of year is the worst time of year to have a spill.”

While Husky Energy investigates the root cause of the failure (a company spokesperson says it's not clear if the storm was responsible), wildlife biologists working with the company are surveying the spill area. The oil likely affected any marine life, including fish and plankton, that contacted it—but for now, biologists are focused on the birds. So far, they have spotted 18 oil-affected birds and recovered six, including three murres, two petrels, and one gull, which they sent to a rehabilitation center in St. John’s. Six additional birds have died.

That might not seem like many birds, but that's because it’s difficult to precisely gauge the extent of the damage. By the time Husky Energy sent out an underwater vehicle to inspect the platform’s broken valve three days after the spill, waves had already mixed the oil and seawater into a froth. And during observation flights, they could no longer see an oily sheen on the water’s surface, making the spill hard to track.

Plus, searching for oiled birds in rolling waves and stormy weather is challenging, says Sabina Wilhelm, a seabird biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the government entity responsible for assessing impacts on wildlife. Far offshore, oiled birds are more likely to die and sink, with their bodies never recovered. Wilhelm is currently coordinating surveys of the spill area to get a better sense of seabird densities. The Canadian Wildlife Service plans on pairing their data with information from other government bodies to get an estimate of seabird mortality. The work is a priority, Wilhelm says, but it may take a few weeks—even months—to collect and analyze all the data.

The total impact of the incident is likely much greater than the couple dozen birds observed so far, Jones says. Mortality counts could range from hundreds of birds to over a hundred thousand, he says. A smaller spill at the same time of year in 2004 killed an estimated 10,000 birds.

The incident demonstrates the inherent risks involved in offshore oil and gas drilling as the Trump administration moves to expand offshore operations on the Atlantic coast. Last week, the U.S. government approved five companies’ requests to conduct seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration offshore from Delaware to Florida. Spills like the one in Newfoundland are the kinds of accidents that are increasingly likely to occur with offshore drilling, Jones says.

The recent spill happened on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, where the continental shelf drops off into the open ocean. Currents bring food sources such as plankton and forage fish to the surface and within seabirds’ diving range. Nearly 40 million seabirds overwinter in the area, including Dovekies and Thick-billed Murres traveling south from Arctic regions. In addition to migrating species, the area is home to a variety of local bird populations, including Common Murres, Leach’s Storm-Petrels, and a multitude of gulls.

“Oil and seabirds don’t mix,” says Steve Kress, executive director of the Seabird Restoration Program and vice president for Bird Conservation of the National Audubon Society. A mere drop can kill a Dovekie and a teaspoon can kill a murre, Jones says. The petroleum breaks down the waterproof seal in their feathers, exposing the birds’ skin to ocean temperatures that are barely above freezing at this time of year; such cold-water leaks can make seabirds susceptible to hypothermia.

“The birds also instinctively want to clean their feathers,” Kress says. When they preen, they ingest oil, which can have toxic effects internally, such as creating ulcers in their digestive tracts. If a lot of birds were to die from oil pollution, the spill could have lasting population effects, Kress says, because Dovekies and murres have relatively long lifespans and low reproductive rates.

The oil spill is just one more hit to Arctic bird populations from the fossil fuel industry, Jones says. Human-caused climate change affects murres and dovekies in northern locations, too, altering their diets and melting their habitats. The oil extracted offshore Newfoundland contributes to their struggles both when it’s burned and when it’s spilled, he says. “It’s really part of a double whammy.”