Bright Lights, Big Problems: Northern Gateway Poses Risk to Marine Birds
For those who don't already know, Nature Canada is one of those radical groups opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project. And while many have offered intelligent, well-stated rebuttals to this odd claim (try this, and this), we all know such talk is a diversion.
The real issue is the project itself, and whether it's in the public interest.
As an official intervenor, we've submitted written evidence, with BC Nature, that argues Enbridge has failed to adequately consider the potential effects of the project on marine birds, birds listed under the Species at Risk Act, Important Bird Areas and Woodland Caribou.
For those not inclined to read the nearly 100 pages of scientific analysis -- but who still wish to be informed about this, one of the largest proposed infrastructure projects in recent memory, we'll break it down in manageable bits for you. So let's get started.
Bright Lights, Big Problems
The negative impacts of artificial lights on marine birds – loons, grebes, albatrosses, geese, swans, terns among others – are well documented. Lights cause birds to veer off their normal migratory pathway, or delay migration. Birds can circle platforms for extended periods, collide with lighted structures, or even become so disoriented they collide with the ground.
Birds have large eyes and optic lobe which provides them with excellent vision; birds that are active at night sport retinas containing a compound that enables superior night vision. Marine birds have an additional aid; an internal magnetic compass helps them to navigate during migration between breeding and wintering areas. But red light is exceptionally attractive to marine birds and interferes with the magnetic compass, causing disorientation. That’s why lights from, say, an oil platform can be bad news for marine birds indeed.
Artificial light may also expose seabirds to predators that wouldn’t otherwise see them. In fact, the nocturnal behaviour of many species at their breeding colonies is thought to be an adaptation to decrease predation, and birds keep activity to a minimum at the colonies on moonlit nights. The proposed shipping route for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project passes in close proximity to significant marine bird breeding colonies, effectively trumping the birds’ best laid defensive efforts.
Enbridge dismisses effects on marine birds of lights as “rare and short-term.” However, reports of impacts on marine birds of artificial lights on moving or anchored vessels are readily available in the literature or through discussion with local fishermen. Enbridge could even look to earlier, similar project assessments.
For example, the NaiKun application for development of a wind farm in Hecate Strait considered the potential impacts of lights related to its project on local marine birds. Similarly, the Bird Avoidance and Lighting Plan, prepared for ConocoPhillips (2011) in support of their sea drilling program, notes that:
“birds often can be attracted to and disoriented by artificial lights, especially during periods of low ambient visibility, which may result in potentially fatal drownings, exhaustion, or collisions (Cochran and Graber 1958; Verheijen 1981, 1985; Rich and Longcore 2006). Although the effects of lights on Spectacled and Steller’s Eiders specifically have not been determined, studies have demonstrated that seabirds and migrating birds at sea are particularly susceptible to deleterious effects of artificial lighting (Telfer et al. 1987, Le Corre et al. 2002, Russell 2005, Montevecchi 2006).”
The negative impact of artificial light on marine birds is a widespread, well-known phenomenon. The dismissal by Enbridge of impacts of artificial lights at the terminal, on moving vessels and on vessels at anchor as a cause of death or injury to marine birds is indefensible in light of the state of knowledge about this issue.
This is just one way in which the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project poses risks too great to nature; it’s by no means the only one. We'll highlight others in upcoming blog posts.The information summarized above is based on our formal submission to the panel; the section on marine birds was written by Anne Harfenist, an expert on marine bird ecology, demography and behaviour with a 31-year career in bird conservation. For more information, and sources used, read our written evidence