A major oil spill off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, is proving challenging for biologists trying to assess the damage caused to wildlife.
On November 16, Husky Energy’s SeaRose off-shore oil platform, located about 350 kilometres from St. John’s in the White Rose oilfield, dumped an estimated 250,000 liters of oil into the sea off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The SeaRose was attempting to restart oil production during a fierce storm that was, at the time, the most intense in the world. Husky was the only producer that attempted to restart production during the storm, according to a Global News report.
In this underwater oil field, wells are drilled by a mobile drilling unit and connected to the SeaRose through a network of flow lines. The spill was the result of a damaged underwater connection between the oil platform and the oil tanker.
It is the largest spill every reported in Newfoundland and it happened at a particularly dangerous time for migrating sea birds.
“This is perhaps the worst time of year for an oil spill to occur with respect to seabirds,” Gail Fraser, a biologist who specializes in maritime seabirds told The Guardian. “There are literally millions of [them] that move down from the Arctic. They’re there in really high densities and they are highly vulnerable to even small amounts of oil pollution.”
Arctic seabirds such as murres and dovekies migrate south and spend their winters off the shotes of Newfoundland. The birds are extremely vulnerable to the cold, in part because oil damages the natural insulation provided by the bird's feathers. When oil disrupts the birds' feathers, it leaves them vulnerable to hypothermia.
“They depend on their waterproof feathers to survive in this harsh environment, which is exactly what this oil attacks," Ian Jones, a seabird ecologist at Memorial University, told iPolitics. "Once their feathers are compromised, they’re chilled. Then they’re desperately trying to stay alive over a number of days, ultimately succumbing to a combination of exhaustion and drowning.”
Wild life biologists working to determine the extent of the damage to wildlife are aware that a much smaller spill from the Terra Nova in 2004, also off the coast of Newfoundland, killed 10,000 seabirds. Some estimates put the number as high as 100,000.
The company that operates SeaRose has only reported 11 oiled birds so far, but Fraser fears the impact may be much higher, since the birds live far off shore, and likely will not wash up on any local beaches. "We’re not going to see dead birds on land," Fraser told the Guardian."There’s no graphic images to grab the public to help them realize how important the impact of this spill could be."
Newfoundland's natural resources minister, Siobhan Coady, was critical of the oil company's decision to begin production while the waters in the area were still rough after the storm. “If they did everything according to protocol, then we need to change the protocol,” she said.