As Vancouver cleans up from the bunker fuel spill in its harbour, fingers are pointing at who was responsible for the slow and confusing response. This spill happened in ideal weather conditions and in the backyard of the coast's best-equipped response location. One can only imagine the impacts — for people, wildlife and habitats — of larger amounts of oil in less ideal weather conditions.
Vancouver's harbour is a relatively rich ecological area with migrating and permanent birdlife. April is an especially important time for many birds. Trained volunteer oiled-wildlife first responders are helping at least 30 oil-covered birds, and more damage is expected. If past spills are any indication, we can expect impacts on marine life and habitats from the toxic leftovers to continue for decades.
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Vancouver has a lot at stake. English Bay and Burrard Inlet are designated as one of Canada's "important bird areas". Burrard Inlet is a sheltered fjord of Georgia Strait with rocky shorelines, extensive tidal sand and mud flats and saltwater marshes, all areas where leftover oil deposits can do significant damage.
The area is designated as globally important for western grebe, Barrow's goldeneye and surf scoter, and nationally for the great blue heron. Even before the oil threat, many of these bird populations were dropping. Western grebes wintered here between 1980 and 1995 in numbers ranging from 2,000 to 15,000. Counts since 2000 have declined significantly, ranging from 100 to 500 birds. A peak count of 7,126 wintering Barrow's goldeneye was recorded in 1990. That's about four per cent of the world's population. Since 2000, however, mid-winter combined counts have ranged from 550 to 3,672. Indian Arm, an area near Vancouver that models show could be affected by oil spills, is an important staging area in the spring for Barrow's goldeneye on their way to breed on freshwater wetlands further north. This area in Vancouver also has one per cent of the global surf scoter population. At the national level, great blue heron, which set up a heronry in Stanley Park in 2001, are listed as a species of "special concern" under the federal Species at Risk Act, with a peak count of 183.
Bunker fuel is a toxic substance with damaging effects on ecosystems. In 2007, a larger spill of bunker fuel in San Francisco Bay turned out to be more toxic than predicted for fish embryos, devastating the herring population that feeds seabirds, whales and the bay's last commercial fishery, according to scientific reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although it's still unclear just how much of the spilled fuel has been recovered in Vancouver, we know that some oil has sunk to the ocean bottom and remained in the water column, some is nestling in rocky shorelines and some has reached sensitive ecosystems and is damaging marine life.
This oil spill is not a wake-up call. It's a reality check as plans move ahead to dramatically increase the number of tankers in Vancouver's harbour to transport oil from Alberta's tar sands to Asia. The David Suzuki Foundation created a model of a very similar scenario years ago. Next time — and there will be a next time — the weather conditions and location of an oil spill might not be so ideal.
What you can do
Daily recordings from keen bird watchers on the E-bird website add to our knowledge of which birds in Vancouver may have been affected by the oil spill.