Seabirds at risk from offshore oil extraction activity in Newfoundland - a primer


Due to increased interest in the question of environmental damage caused by oil spills resulting from offshore drilling (resulting from media attention on the Deepwater Horizon event), it seems worthwhile to provide a quick answer to the following question (many people have been asking me this recently):

What wildlife is at risk from oil spills off NEWFOUNDLAND, that would be harmed by a spill (large or small) from one of our offshore rigs?

Here is my answer (please pass on).

Seabirds are a major (and possibly the most vulnerable) wildlife at risk. The total number of seabirds present off Newfoundland year round is one of the largest (if not the largest) concentration of seabirds anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and possibly the world. Newfoundland seabird numbers exceed those present off British Columbia by a factor of about 10x, the Canadian arctic (putative Beaufort Sea oil field) by about 100x, and the Gulf of Mexico by more than 200x. All of these birds are vulnerable to oil pollution and other activity at Newfoundland offshore oil fields. Many of the birds present here are the type (auks, family Alcidae) that have the highest vulnerability to oil spills. The oil field is at the center of seabird activity off Newfoundland year round. Contrary to what some people have been saying recently, the greatest risk/damage to Newfoundland seabirds is offshore, not at the coast, and a major oil spill in the offshore at any time of year would likely cause catastrophic and difficult to repair damage to seabird populations.

In SUMMER (June-August), the offshore Grand Banks of Newfoundland, the shelf break, and the Orphan Basin (the oil field being located approximately in the center of this area) are used by two groups of birds:

1) the Newfoundland breeding species, principally COMMON MURRES (that breed especially at Funk Island, c. one million birds present) and LEACH'S STORM-PETREL (breeding on several islands, e.g., Baccalieu Island, one of the world's largest seabird colonies of any species, including three million pairs of Leach's Storm-petrels surveyed by Dr. Montevecchi et al.). Common Murres briefly follow capelin close inshore but otherwise are an offshore species common in the oil field and near the shelf break. Leach's Storm-Petrel is an offshore species (preferring areas at and beyond the shelf break e.g., Orphan Basin) and breeding and non-breeding individuals are present in huge numbers in and beyond the oil field. Storm-petrel vulnerability to spilled oil is less than that of auks (e.g., Common Murre), but storm-petrels are extremely vulnerable to fatal light attraction at lit structures at sea (e.g., offshore oil activity lights and flares) and likely die by the thousands at Newfoundland offshore oil rigs (likely in contravention of the MBTA). Seven other NL breeding seabird species (Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and Black-legged Kittiwake), all vulnerable to oil, are present in numbers (but dwarfed by the huge numbers of Common Murre and Leach's Storm-petrel).

2) also in summer, even more seabirds arrive from the South Atlantic ('wintering' in our area during our summer months), included more than five million GREATER SHEARWATERS and SOOTY SHEARWATERS. These birds breed at Tristan da Cunah and Gough Islands and in the Falkland islands and in summer their activity focuses on the highly productive Newfoundland Grand Banks offshore. The Newfoundland offshore is critical habitat for most of the world population of Greater Shearwater. Other, endangered, tropical species (e.g., Fea's Petrel, Black-capped Petrel et c.) occur on the fringe of our area and any oil activity related mortality could threaten these species with extinction.


In WINTER (October-April), Newfoundland's local COMMON MURRES are in the offshore area (centered on the oil field), and are joined by several million THICK-BILLED MURRES, some from Newfoundland but most from arctic Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia, and by several million DOVEKIES from Greenland and Norway. These are the world's birds most vulnerable to oil pollution at sea. Large numbers of Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes and Atlantic Puffins winter in the Newfoundland offshore, while Leach's Storm-petrels are virtually absent (most having migrated south to warmer seas). The shearwaters are gone (in the south Atlantic). In winter, murres are hunted by Newfoundlanders for food (c. 200,000 taken annually).

In SPRING and FALL (i.e., May and September) a mix of both summer and winter species (above) are present, the numbers often exceeding what occurs in summer and winter. The oil field area is the focus on seabird activity as it is in other seasons.

Newfoundland names for these birds:

Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre = turrs
Dovekie = bullbird
Leach's Storm-petrel = Cary chicks
Greater Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater = hagdown
Black-legged Kittiwake = tickle ass

Thanks for reading and do let me know if you have any questions or comments about this.



Ian L. Jones

Department of Biology, Memorial University
St. John's, Newfoundland, A1B 3X9, CANADA

phone (709) 737-7666
fax (709) 737-3018


Last updated: May 13, 2010 This page is maintained by Ian L. Jones (iljones 'at'