April 11, 2006, bilge oil from an unidentified ship was illegally
dumped off of southern Newfoundland killing thousands of seabirds and
sea ducks. The oily waste was dumped near shore, during the start of
the nesting season when waters temperatures were still near to
freezing. These factors made this most recent spill one of the worst
to ever occur in eastern Canada in terms of visible damage done to
wildlife and the environment.
Though efforts were made to determine
the source of the oil, the responsible ship was never identified, and
no charges were laid in association with the crime. This incident was
tragic, but it is certainly not isolated.
Some of the world's busiest
shipping routes converge in Atlantic Canada, coincident with the
ranges of roughly 40 million pelagic seabirds. The proximity of the
ships passing through the area to critical marine habitats puts
seabirds and other marine wildlife at perpetual risk to oiling
Ship dumping bilge oil
(photo: Canadian Coast Guard)
Oil from ships can enter the water through large or small
accidental oil spills, but it most commonly reaches the marine
environment through the deliberate, illegal and routine discharge of
untreated oily ship wastes. All motorized vessels accumulate oily
bilge water during normal operations, and most transport ships have
the capacity to either store their oily wastes until it can be legally
disposed of at a destination port, or on-board facilities to treat
wastes and legally discharge them at sea.
Unfortunately, many ships'
captains and crewmembers choose instead to illegally dump their
untreated oily wastes into the sea, saving their companies time and
money, but costing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and sea ducks
their lives, and polluting our marine environment. The cumulative
impacts of these illegal and irresponsible actions on Canada's marine
wildlife are immense.
Four times more oil is intentionally dumped into the sea from ships
each year than is released from all of the world's unintentional and
often highly publicized spills combined. Yet it takes as little as one
drop of oil the size of a quarter to kill a seabird. Oil's hydrophobic
nature causes it to be readily absorbed into the bird's plumage,
decreasing the bird's insulation, waterproofing, and buoyancy.
oiled bird then sinks deeper into the water, and becomes less able to
fly, forage, and fend off predators. Less able to insulate against the
cold water, it also requires more calories to try to stay warm. Unable
to compensate for its growing energy deficit, its body begins to
metabolize its own muscle tissue. If the bird ingests or inhales the
petroleum products while trying to preen itself of the substances, the
products' toxic effects can also lead to liver failure and blindness.
If it does not sink, or is not scavenged first, the bird eventually
freezes or starves to death.
(photo: Canadian Wildlife Service)
Representing one of the highest oiling rates in the world,
ship-source oil pollution kills an estimated 300,000 seabirds every
year in Atlantic Canada. This trend must not continue.
The problem of illegal oil pollution is pronounced in Canada for
several reasons. The first is that Canada's surveillance, enforcement
efforts, and penalties have historically been inadequate to provide
strong punitive incentives for compliance with our marine pollution
laws. For example, between 1994 and 2004, the average fine levied on
those dumping oil in Canadian waters ranged between ten and fifteen
thousand dollars . In the USA and Europe, fines are routinely in the
hundreds of thousands to million-dollar range, and surveillance and
enforcement efforts are much more intensive than Canadian efforts.
Conviction in other countries also commonly results in criminal
charges and the suspension of working papers for ships' operators,
which has not occurred in Canada.
The second reason is that facilities
for ships to legally dispose of their wastes may be inadequate to
efficiently support 100% compliance with legal disposal laws. Canada's
less frequent surveillance, low marine pollution prosecution rate, and
infrastructural issues has made our waters an attractive dumping
ground for ship operators looking to break the law.
In the spring of 2005, Canada moved to combat the problem of
illegal bilge oil dumping by passing Bill C-15, which amends the
Migratory Birds Convention Act (1994), and the Canadian Environmental
Protection Act (1999). The amendments clarify the prohibitions found
in both Acts against the dumping of oily bilge wastes or other
pollutants into the ocean, and strengthen Canada's legal capacity to
prosecute marine polluters.
Bill C-15 extends jurisdiction of the
existing legislation to include all of Canada's 200 nautical mile
exclusive economic zone, increases maximum penalties for polluters
from $250,000 to $1,000,000, increases minimum fines from $100,000 to
$500,000 for vessels over 5000 tonnes (dry weight), and holds
operators of ships illegally polluting in Canadian waters individually
accountable for these actions. Bill C-15 does not impose any new
restrictions on ships, but significantly improves the power of
Canadian authorities to detect, detain, and enforce the full extent of
Canadian laws against those who choose to violate it.
Common Murre colony at Great Island, NL
(photo: Candian Wildlife Service)
With the passing of Bill C-15, the federal government promised to
re-allocate $3,000,000 from within the existing Environment Canada
budget to fund coordinated, multi-departmental surveillance and
enforcement activities, develop new laboratories, hire and train new
staff, and re-train existing staff to implement the initiatives
outlined within Bill C-15. Some of these initiatives are already
Bill C-15 is an important step in the right direction, and it sends
a message to potential polluters that Canada will no longer tolerate
flagrant disregard for our marine pollution laws. But much more
remains to be done. The federal and provincial governments, in
partnership with industry, academia, and non-governmental
organizations need to support efforts to address research and
development needs, support conservation strategies, strengthen
surveillance and enforcement efforts, and increase infrastructural
capabilities for ships to legally dispose of oily wastes in Atlantic
Canada. Without these efforts, Canadian waters will continue to be
illegally polluted, and vast numbers of Canadian wildlife will
continue to be needlessly killed by oil. Canada now has the mandate
and the power to combat this problem; efforts must continue to ensure
that the practice of illegal bilge oil dumping is eliminated in
Canadian waters forever.
 The highest fine ever levied for ship-source oil
pollution in Canada is $170,000.