Coastal bird populations and Big Oil

Raincoast studies helped put nails in the coffin of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

How I found myself out here, perched on the bow some 80 kilometres off Canada’s Pacific coast, was typical of a field biologist. The previous fall, having emerged financially and mentally drained after completing a master’s degree in biology, I had accepted a somewhat uninspiring contract to spend the winter feeding anemic-looking geoduck clams and performing odd jobs in the bowels of a Fisheries and Oceans Canada facility in Nanaimo.

Nearing the end of the contract and attempting to do something more meaningful with my newfound scientific skills, I called up a friend from university who worked for Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Mike Price, then a salmon and sea-lice biologist who toiled at the margins of science, politics and commerce, let me know there were volunteer opportunities on Raincoast’s research vessel. Mike said the words “marine surveys,” “volunteer” and “up in the Great Bear,” and I immediately responded with “I’m in, when do we leave?”

It turned out the boat was leaving the dock in Nanaimo in early April, just two weeks away. The objective was clear: Survey the density and distribution of British Columbia’s coastal marine birds and mammals, many of which are listed as species at risk in Canada. Covering roughly 2,000 kilometres of ocean transects in a couple months, the surveys would consist of a six-person team for marine mammals, including whales, seals and sea otters. Marine birds, tacked on to the surveys afterward, but with no more room available on an already cramped boat, were slated to have just a single observer.

As the only volunteer with both mammal and bird-identification skills, I was automatically designated to survey birds, which are considerably more difficult to identify, and in British Columbia’s waters are far more species-rich than mammals. In hindsight, the decision to volunteer as a marine bird observer would influence the course of my academic trajectory.

In 2004, Raincoast took up the long-term and massively expensive task to survey the distribution and density of marine birds and mammals in British Columbia’s coastal waters. Systematic, randomized, line-transect surveys were designed for the offshore waters of Dixon Entrance south to Queen Charlotte Strait and the winding inlets that lie adjacent to it.

In a single survey season, an area encompassing about 75,000 square kilometres of ocean, cut through with approximately 2,000 kilometres of line transects, was to be surveyed. Repeated in the spring, summer and fall, the combined surveys would yield a series of seasonal and interannual “snapshots” of marine bird and mammal diversity and distribution.

The impetus for such an endeavour was not complex. Seemingly misplaced in time, the archipelagos of the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii — and the waters that lie between — had escaped many, but far from all, of the changes brought by the Industrial Age.

On the lands of Haida Gwaii and the Great Bear Rainforest grow the world’s largest surviving tracts of ancient temperate rainforest. In the oceans, heavily exploited as they are, currents and associated upwelling still drive highly productive marine ecosystems that are characterized by their abundance and diversity of wildlife, including marine mammals and birds.

Connected with both marine and terrestrial ecosystems are a diversity of resilient indigenous human cultures that have co-evolved with these land and seascapes for millennia. And although both marine and terrestrial socio-ecological systems have been greatly impacted by the advent of the Industrial Age, they are often intact and functioning, unlike locations elsewhere on the North American coast. In many cases, these areas serve as the last refuge for species and ecosystems alike.

Troublingly, various agents of the global economy have remembered this region, which nearly two decades ago was referred to as “Canada’s forgotten coast.” Onto a coast already burdened by industrial-scale extraction and facing the accelerating effects of a changing climate, there are a litany of proposals for oil tankers, pipelines, run-of-river hydroelectric projects and a host of other industrial installations. Prior to the federal election in 2015, many projects were waved through watered-down Canadian federal environmental review processes, while others were directly rubber-stamped, entirely exempted from federal review. Several major projects are up and running, with dozens more coming down the figurative pipeline.

For Raincoast’s surveys, it was the proposal for marine seismic surveys to evaluate the promise of hydrocarbons stored under the continental shelf — an early step toward commercial extraction — that provided the initial motivation to initiate surveys. However, in the ensuing years, it was the sheer number of proposals, some of which came with enormous risk for coastal ecosystems and human communities, that kept our momentum going.

One project in particular came to overshadow the others, both in terms of its scale, its enormous potential for harm and the level of opposition that it generated. After simmering in the background for years, a mammoth proposal by the oil giant Enbridge Inc. was formally announced in 2006. In the following years — ongoing at this writing — it would come to consume the energies of a wide range of players, including Big Oil, civil servants, politicians, consultants, public relations companies, First Nations and NGOs, including Raincoast.

As proposed, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project would see Alberta’s oilsands oil piped over the Rocky Mountains and Coast Mountains, winding through the territories of dozens of First Nations and at points crossing ancient, irreplaceable ecosystems to a terminus in Kitimat, located in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. From there, the world’s dirtiest oil would be loaded onto supertankers that would wend their toxic bulk through the fractured and violent waterways of Canada’s Pacific coast to buyers overseas.

But it wasn’t just that there were industrial projects proposed or that there were dozens upon dozens of them. It was that certain projects could irreparably alter a coast that has been described as the “best of the last,” a place where ancient cultures still coexist within ancient, still surprisingly intact and resilient temperate coastal ecosystems. An additional issue was that the fate of these projects was being decided — for most of them, at the federal level — based upon abysmal information.

Too often, glossy reports trotted out by energy proponents claimed the negative impacts of the projects would be minimal to zero, but the best available scientific information regarding wildlife and ecosystems was some combination of 20-plus-year-old information, guesstimate or information for just a small area. A popular tactic was to generate maps for the coast where large areas with an absence of information relating to a given species of interest, whether humpback whale or marbled murrelet, were identified as areas of low importance. The game was clear: Equate a lack of information with a lack of risk, minimise and twist what limited information existed and move on.

Just as industry had overlooked much of the coast, so, too, had federal agencies responsible for environmental monitoring and protection. Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada, both of which have experienced severe, serial, financial guttings, mass layoffs and a concomitant weakening of relatively toothless environmental laws, had, unsurprisingly, failed to fulfil their mandates for the conservation of species and habitats, including even the most basic scientific requirements such as quantitative population monitoring.

In the coastal waters that lie between the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii, ecological knowledge of marine birds, their at-sea distributions and abundances, patterns of change and the environmental mechanisms that underpin them remain very poorly understood. In particular, in seasons other than summer, the shallow waters of places such as Dogfish Banks and the winding waterways of the inlets are little known from a scientific perspective.

Already, a number of marine bird species on the British Columbian coast are considered to be at elevated risk of extinction and have demonstrated a pronounced vulnerability to a host of anthropogenic threats, including oil spills, introduced predators and climate change. This, combined with a relative lack of baseline information for marine birds at sea, placed marine birds in a conservation predicament that, in Raincoast’s view, required urgent attention. And although the issues marine birds face are vast and numerous, major knowledge gaps regarding baseline information, particularly distribution and abundance, are resolvable through intensive at-sea surveys.

That being said, British Columbia’s marine birds have benefited from over a century of scientific research and conservation efforts. Several hundred biologists, naturalists and bird enthusiasts, among them individuals such as Charles Guiguet and Ian McTaggart Cowan, have devoted significant portions of their lives to the study and conservation of British Columbia’s marine birds. Further, Environment Canada has been surveying marine birds aboard ships-of-opportunity for several decades.

But the waters that stretch from Dixon Entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound are remote and dangerous, making access more difficult, expensive and time-consuming than waters elsewhere in British Columbia. As such, significant knowledge gaps in these remote areas remain. Into this gap slid Raincoast, a small NGO that had never before focused on marine birds or mammals, which committed to undertake the largest-to-date, systematic, at-sea survey in this region of British Columbia and to provide quantitative baselines for numerous at-risk marine species.

From At Sea with the Marine Birds of the Raincoast © Caroline Fox, 2016, Rocky Mountain Books.

Times Colonist May 7, 2017: An excerpt from the book “At Sea With the Marine Birds of the Raincoast” by Caroline Fox. See more photos and the story at the Times Colonist.

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Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.