Report: Seabirds and Oil Spills

New Zealand is known as the ‘Seabird Capital of the World’: close to a quarter of the world’s seabird species breed in New Zealand while almost half of those breed nowhere else. 

Anadarko plans to drill in our waters this summer and if there is a major oil spill, the effect on our wildlife could be catastrophic. 

In order to understand the effect of an underwater blowout, Forest & Bird/Birdlife International seabird expert Chris Gaskin prepared a report on the issue. To see the fact file, go here: 

The Rena disaster showed that even a relatively small spill can have a devastating “local” effect. The areas where Anadarko plans to drill are high use areas for seabirds, so its effect could wreak havoc on the populations of various species. 

Given NZ’s unique position as a host to so many of the world’s seabird species, Forest & Bird believes it needs to maintain its duty of care, especially given that it does not have the same infrastructure to try and cap any blowouts when compared to other countries. 

Below are some of the key facts about how oil affects seabirds. 

• Seabirds can’t escape oil on the sea’s surface because they won’t know it's there until it's too late. Oiled birds can’t fly, swim or feed. Most will drown.

Seabirds immediately begin attempting to clean their feathers when they get oiled. Ingested oil can be lethal.

Oil reduces the waterproofing of the feathers and makes the birds vulnerable to hypothermia. Birds lacking waterproofing will lose buoyancy.

Most seabirds will die when they get covered in oil. Some species such as penguins are a little hardier, but it takes weeks of intensive care for them to recover.

We will never see the full impact of an oil spill at sea on seabirds. The number of oiled bird carcasses found on beaches will represent only a fraction of the total killed.

Some birds might wash ashore alive and be picked up. But it is highly unlikely that recovery attempts would be made in a deep sea situation. Studies at seabird colonies affected by a spill may give us some idea of the likely impacts but it won’t save any birds.

If an oil spill happens in the middle of the breeding season, adults could return to the colony bringing contaminated food and transferring oil to chicks. Alternatively, if one parent is killed the chick dies.

Oil spills from deep-water wells will impact on New Zealand’s threatened seabirds. Which species and how many will depend on where that well is located, and the rate and volume of oil released into the marine environment before it can be shut down.

 Photo: A giant petrel caught in the Rena oil spill. Maureen Burgess.