Profile: Karen Baird

 1) What’s your involvement with Forest & Bird?

I’m the Seabird Advocate for Forest & Bird and Birdlife International and I coordinate Pacific efforts through management of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations to increase protection for seabirds from by-catch. I advocate for the protection of seabirds in New Zealand through local and national government advocacy and with the fishing industry.

Karen (left) identifying oiled seabirds. Photo: Kim Westerskov

Karen (left) identifying oiled seabirds. Photo: Kim Westerskov

2) How were you involved in the clean-up following the oil spill?

Following the spill Forest & Bird had set up a tent at the National Oiled Wildlife Response Centre in Tauranga, where I offered my services. I was there for a week, mostly in the bird morgue. I was working to identify the species of dead oiled seabirds that were brought in, by the bagful.

3) What did you find most challenging and/or rewarding about your role in the clean-up?

I found dealing with the emotional aspect very challenging. During the day when you’re working you don’t really think about it, but often in the evenings the real impact of the disaster really hits you. We were filling up entire fish bins with the bodies of dead birds.

However I did find working with the other volunteers very rewarding. I was with a large number of people who had all volunteered their time to help ameliorate the effects of the spill. I enjoyed being part of the combined effort.

4) What is your most vivid memory from the clean-up?

We were told one day that some media people would be around, and we wanted to really show the impact of the spill. For a strong visual effect we laid out a big blue tarpaulin and spread out the bodies of different seabirds, arranging them according to species and size. There were big birds like giant petrel surrounded by the bodies of small birds, like diving petrels, which were the most numerous. The impact of seeing them all there in front of you was shocking, and that’s the image that is the most memorable for me.

5) How much work do you think is needed to return the environment back to its original state (pre-spill)?

I think that with any oil spill time is a big factor. While oil does generally break down, the populations of seabirds living on the coast and on the nearby islands will take longer to recover. Seabirds are slow breeders, only laying one egg per year and they take a long time to reach maturity. Because of this, and the sheer numbers lost during the spill, their populations will take decades to recover.

6) Do you have any advice for New Zealanders in regard to protecting our wildlife from any further environmental disasters?

Preventing a spill is definitely better than trying to clean up afterwards. We were lucky this time, the effects of the spill could have been a lot worse. And I am sure that in the future we will have a worse spill, partly because we do not have effective prevention systems in place.

As a country, we need to think very carefully about the kind of future we want. We are now seeing the decline in easily accessible oil resources that was predicted decades ago. But we keep hunting out ways to get at more environmentally risky oil sources, such as deep sea oil drilling and fracking. We aren’t lacking in intelligence here; we should be thinking about green energy sources rather than trying to squeeze out every last drop of oil.