Seabirds disappearing

The small nocturnal birds known as Leach's storm petrels are a telling symbol of ocean health. But they've vanished in the millions since offshore oil production started 20 years ago in the North Atlantic east of St. John's, N.L., and no one's sure why.

Seabird specialist Bill Montevecchi of Memorial University of Newfoundland says it's high time potential links were studied. He's among researchers who say regulators have failed to require independent, scientific analysis of a drastic decline within the world's largest colony at Baccalieu Island.

It's down about 40 per cent, or more than three million birds.

"We know these birds are attracted to the flares, we know they're attracted to the platforms," Montevecchi said of the four major offshore oil sites operating within a short flight.

"What are we doing to monitor them? Nothing of any consequence. It's shameful. It's appalling that we would be in this circumstance."

Biologist Gail Fraser of York University agreed there's a glaring lack of consistent scientific data that could help analyze the role of artificial light at Hibernia, Terra Nova, White Rose and now the Hebron site about 350 kilometres southeast of St. John's.

The federal-provincial regulator doesn't require all operators to assess how often the birds are hurt or killed when they get stranded, collide with equipment, or fly into burning flares, she said in an interview.

"It has been an ongoing issue for decades and the operators are not systematically collecting data that can provide us with an idea of how serious the impact of artificial lighting can be."

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board should require all sites to use light deflectors and allow independent observers on production platforms, Fraser said.

"Seabirds play an important function in the ocean's ecosystems and they're under threat by a wide variety of human activities. Offshore oil is one of those activities, and the operators are obligated to understand what the impacts are on those seabirds."

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