The senseless slaughter of our seabirds

Hundreds of thousands of them are being killed by oil wastes needlessly dumped by ships. A distinguished Canadian naturalist tells what we must do to stop one of the most devastating massacres of wildlife in history

JOHN A. LIVINGSTON August 2 1958

The senseless slaughter of our seabirds

Hundreds of thousands of them are being killed by oil wastes needlessly dumped by ships. A distinguished Canadian naturalist tells what we must do to stop one of the most devastating massacres of wildlife in history

JOHN A. LIVINGSTON August 2 1958

The senseless slaughter of our seabirds

Hundreds of thousands of them are being killed by oil wastes needlessly dumped by ships. A distinguished Canadian naturalist tells what we must do to stop one of the most devastating massacres of wildlife in history


"Man is the filthiest animal that has ever trod the face of the earth.” JAMES FISHER.

In a generally enlightened age of intelligent wildlife management, nature protection and increasingly wise use of resources, mid-twentieth-century man is committing one of the most devastating massacres of wild creatures in history.

Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic seabirds are being slaughtered needlessly by the dumping of oil and oily substances from ocean-going ships.

Each bird that dies is dreadful testament to the colossal insensitivity that man so often displays toward his environment. It has been said that with each such act of senseless and careless killing of his fellow creatures, man loses part of his humanity. Pollution by oil is graphic illustration of the worst in human callousness and indifference. It reflects, perhaps, a regrettable diminution in latterday spiritual and moral values.

This modern horror can find its only parallel in the notorious annihilation of the passenger pigeon or the Eskimo curlew in the last century. Authorities on both sides of the ocean arc recording alarming drops in seabird populations every winter.

Oiling of the seas dates back no further than the advent of oil-burning and oil-carrying ships— perhaps thirty-five years. Modern ships customarily discharge engine wastes and flush bunker tanks at regular intervals. The expedient, wholly inexcusable and unnecessary practice has been to dispose of this lethal refuse on the surface of the sea.

Drifting oil is doom to seabirds. The merest drop of oil on a bird’s body mats its feathers, destroys their insulation, brings almost certain death by exposure or starvation. A very few gallons of oil can destroy thousands of birds.

Along the forbidding coast of Newfoundland’s bleakly beautiful Cape Race, on the frozen rock-and-pcbblestrewn shores, I have seen the hideous remains of what once were birds slowly, sickeningly eddying in black slimy pools between the boulders. I have seen the desiccated, oil-fouled carrion lying at high-tide mark along the gravelly beaches.

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The senseless slaughter of our seabirds continued from page 24

Wildlife officers in Newfoundland told me this spring that the annual kill of birds by oil pollution of our Atlantic approaches is becoming appallingly severe. A conservative figure is “many thousands annually." The slaughter is equally serious on the other side of the ocean. During the winter of 1951-52 it was estimated that a hundred thousand oiled birds were found around the coast of the British Isles.

On Scotland’s famous Ailsa Craig in the Clyde, there are only five thousand razor-billed auks where forty years ago there were fifty thousand. This, of course, is in one of the busiest shipping zones in the world.

I once watched the magnificent seabirds of this ancient and awesome basalt cone (its gannets were recorded as early as 1526) from the bridge of a warship, with a feeling that perhaps only another naturalist could fully understand. Should Ailsa Craig's traditional bird population succumb to this latter-day menace, the guilty stain on the hand and heart of man would surely endure for all the ages.

German ornithologists stated recently that the common scoter is the greatest single victim in that part of the world, but that murres, eiders, long-tailed ducks, gannets, terns, gulls, curlews, coots and many others are being destroyed as well.

The Vogelwarte Helgoland, of Wilhelmshaven, reports 275.170 birds killed in the North Sea in 1955, due probably in large part to a disaster involving a Danish tanker. In March 1952 about thirty thousand seabirds died by oil pollution off the Swedish coast. This spring I was informed that, owing to oil pollution in the Baltic at various times in recent decades, the Swedish population of the long-tailed duck (Canada's familiar “old squaw") is in danger of extinction.

When one considers the shipping traffic off Newfoundland, in the eastern Atlantic, the North Sea. the Baltic and other areas of high wintering bird concentrations, the death toll may run into hundreds of thousands of birds a year. The grand total over a period of years must be staggering, because in winters of heavy pollution, relatively local losses exceeded a hundred thousand.

In Canada, and especially off the coast of Newfoundland, three native species are more seriously affected than others —eider ducks, murres and razor-billed auks.

The eiders, because they concentrate

in bays and estuaries close to land during the winter, are most severely hurt by oil dumped near shore or brought into shore by winds and currents. Murres, on the other hand, are massacred whether the oil deposits are inshore or out. They suffer the brunt of the loss.

Murres are members of the beautiful and fascinating family of auks. One of these, the flightless great auk, was wiped out by man in the 1840s. Others could follow.

Auks are peculiar to the northern hemisphere. Their opposite numbers in the southern half of the globe are the penguins, which they resemble superficially. An important difference is that those auks still living can fly, penguins cannot. But both are black and white, both have an habitually erect posture on land, and both are highly gregarious.

Although they can fly when they have to, the murres (Newfoundlanders call them “turrs”) arc not especially good at it. Most of the time in the non-breeding seasons they drift back and forth on the surface of the ocean, moving with the currents and fishing as they

In the looking glass

Mirror, mirror on the wall Though you have no heart at all And though you seem to lack the wit To cheer me up a little bit.

I'm resigned to gentle chaffing —

At least you haven’t burst out laughing!

May Richstone

go. l ike penguins, they are divers and remarkably efficient underwater swimmers. At nesting time they gather in tremendous colonics on various isolated islands and inaccessible rocky outcroppings of the mainland coast.

Their very gregariousness and their tendency to drift with currents leave the murres of the North Atlantic particularly susceptible to contamination by oil.

The majority of the murres that breed in the eastern Canadian Arctic and west Greenland (called Arctic, or Briinnich's, or thick-billed murres, depending on the book you read) come south in large flocks during the autumn. They ride the Labrador Current down to the great feeding areas around Newfoundland. All through the winter they remain concentrated in a relatively small area offshore— a "shallow water” belt that extends out to the edge of the continental shelf, roughly to the hundred-fathom limit.

There the first complication arises. From early January onward the immense Arctic ice pack also drifts southward with the Labrador Current. This further compresses the concentrations of birds on the south and southeast coasts of Newfoundland, on or near the major shipping lanes—and the oil.

A very small amount of oil can spread over an incredibly large area. Experiments in Britain have shown that fifteen tons of oil dropped onto a calm sea have covered eight square miles in less than a week. And oil is a remarkable traveler. Oil slicks have been traced for hundreds of miles. Where there arc inshore currents, the results of even very remote oil dumping can be disastrous to seabirds.

As James Fisher, the eminent ornithologist and vice-chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says of England: "Owing to the fact that we live in the corner of the Atlantic Ocean where we do live, and the water of the Atlantic Ocean happens to flow our way, we get the dirty end of the stick.”

The other end of the stick, equally dirty, is held by Newfoundland. Off the island's Avalon Peninsula peculiar local currents are set up, and these with prevailing winds frequently bring in oil from the shipping lanes off the Grand Banks. Offshore, the murres are its victims, suffering a horrific yearly decimation of murre populations. Inshore, well in from the shipping routes, the eider ducks take a terrible beating. After an oil slick has drifted on the sea for some time, the action of the waves sometimes breaks it up into smaller, more viscous and asphaltic “puddles.” which are eventually deposited on shore. It is these coastal concentrations of tarry sticky waste that play havoc.

The razor-billed auk's numerical drop in New'foundland. as at Ailsa Craig, has coincided markedly with the advent of oil-burning ships. According to Leslie M. Tuck, of the Canadian Wildlife Service, who has studied this problem in Newfoundland, the present razor-bill population is only a fraction of what it was twenty years ago. He estimates the nesting population around Newfoundland today as “probably only a couple of thousand.”

Seabirds can become oil-fouled in two ways. The auks, for instance, are divers and, unaware of the danger above, frequently surface in heavy pools of oil. Birds in flight can fall victim if they chance to land on an oil slick. Either way, the birds are almost certainly goners.

By glueing the bird's outer feathers together and matting the thick down underneath, oil destroys the bird's natural insulation that protects it from the killing effects of the icy water. A spot

of oil, no larger than a twenty-five-cent piece, washed onto its belly will kill a murre, says Leslie Tuck. When a swimming bird comes up into an oil slick, its wings and back usually become fouled. As a result, it cannot dive, it cannot feed and it perishes by slow starvation, drifting hopelessly on the excruciatingly cold water. Some birds thus rendered helpless drift eventually in to land, where they attempt to preen their matted feathers. This rarely seems to help. Unless the bird can manage to stay alive somehow until the glued feathers are discarded at a subsequent moult, it perishes. Very few appear to survive this agonizing ordeal.

How many die an oil-fouled death is difficult to guess: estimates often tend to err on the conservative side. Experts believe that only a fraction of the victims are ever counted. A Swedish naturalhistory journal reported in 1952: "Without doubt far out to sea masses of birds have sunk to the bottom without having been observed, so that those which reach land and are observed are perhaps only a fractional part of the number that have really perished.”

Unfortunately, seabirds appear to be attracted to an oil slick for some reason. Some scientists believe that the birds mistake the fuel-oil slicks for the sea-animal oil slicks, which often accompany the masses of phytoplankton accumulating in the spring of the year. These huge concentrations of microscopic life attract the small fish on which most of the auk family usually feed. This association of an oil slick with abundant food seems to draw the birds like iron filings to a magnet.

An editorial by Harold Horw'ood in the St. John’s, Nfld., Evening Telegram of April 20. 1957. said in part: “The public enemy number one, so far as marine life and seabirds are concerned, is the tanker and the cargo ship operating on bunker fuel. These fuel tanks are regularly flushed out while the ships are under way at sea, the waste oil being dumped on the water. ‘Burntlubrication oil is a secondary source of pollution. Ships should be forbidden to dump oil waste at sea. except in case of emergency. There are two broad methods of disposing of such waste without public harm: one is disposal in port; the other is separation and disposal on board ship."

Reclamation of waste oil has been proven to be both practicable and profitable for the shipping operator. Separation equipment for use aboard ship already exists and is being used in a limited way. Ships which cannot use this separating equipment on board should be required to restrict disposal of oil to their ports of call, and all seaports used by oil-carrying ships should provide facilities to receive it.

It has become quite apparent that oceanic oil pollution (barring accidental spilling, collisions, etc.) is a matter of sheer expediency. S. C. Martin, of the United States Public Health Service, said to an international Audubon symposium on water pollution last winter: "This matter of oil pollution is strictly an economic problem. These companies and these ships continue to discharge oil and foul our waters usually because it is easier to do it that way than to do it right. There is no other reason for it. There is no other excuse that can be made for it. There are ways that it can be discharged on land, but sometimes they just don't want to bother. It is simpler and cheaper to use the public property for their waste than to do the thing right.”

In this context, however, the definition of "public property” is a thorny one. The oil dumping that is killing the most seabirds on this side of the Atlantic is happening all too often far outside any nation's legal territorial jurisdiction. Many nations — including Canada — have stifi penalties for pollution by oil of territorial waters. But offshore, in the international /ones of ocean, police action of any effectiveness is to date impossible.

At present, pollution is controlled on the high seas only by the consciences of individual nations and by the consciences of the masters of individual ships. But human conscience is too readily limited by human imagination. And all too easily imagination can become the creature of the other senses — in this instance the sense of expediency.

Outlaw oil dumping?

Over twenty-five years ago, the United States, Belgium. Netherlands, Sweden and Norway joined British shipowners in voluntarily adopting a fifty-mile limit within which oily water could not be discharged from ships. The 1956 annual report of the British Section of the International Committee for Bird Preservation announced that it is now an offense for any British ship to discharge persistent waste oils into the sea anywhere within a thousand miles of the Atlantic coastline of the U. K. In 1936 the United States requested the observance of a hundred-mile limit from its coasts. But it is easier to make such requests than it is to have them acted upon.

Authorities arc generally agreed that such restrictions (though the self-imposed thousand-mile British regulation is laudable) are not (he answer to the slaughter of seabirds by oil. Some heavy oils and oil residues can stay "in a floating condition for a practically indefinite time." according to an unofficial international conference held in London in 1953, attended by representatives of twenty-eight countries. The conference unanimously agreed that the "only action that could really be effective was that of prohibiting the discharge of oil into the sea”— anywhere.

In 1954. as a consequence of the unofficial 1953 meeting, official representatives of forty-two countries, a number of conservation groups, municipal authorities and others met in London, "desiring by common agreement to prevent pollution of the sea by oil discharged from ■Tips, and considering that this end may best be achieved by the conclusion of a convention." After much discussion, a set of strict regulations was drawn up whereby pollution might be prevented by international agreement.

But to make these regulations work, it was required that at least fifteen countries ratify the convention. Of these at least five were required to be of the 500.000-ton gross-tonnage class. At the date of writing only nine countries had ratified the paet—Belgium, Canada, Denmark, United Kingdom, Ireland. German Federal Republic, Mexico, Norway and Sweden. Of these only the U. K. and Sweden are of the 500,000-ton tonnage class.

Notable among the high-tonnage countries represented at the 1954 convention that have not yet ratified the pact is the United States, which, it so happens, has the clean end—if there is one—of the oceanic oil-pollution stick. Favored by a quirk of oceanographic fate, it is in the happy position of having most major ocean currents moving away from its shores. It has been said that a serious oil deposit more than fifty to sixty miles from shore will not present too much of a threat to the U. S. coast. But conservationists elsewhere in the world trust this will not deter the U. S. government from joining with the other major shipping nations in a matter of such pressing importance.

The international conferences highlighted the fact that the correction of oceanic oil pollution, like conservation generally, is a global challenge. No nation is free from responsibility. In spite of anti-dumping laws in individual countries (such as Canada's five-hundreddollar fine for any ship polluting Canadian waters), joint international action appears to be the only effective answer to pollution control on the high seas.

Until the nations unite to end this outrage, irreplaceable seabirds will continue to wallow and perish in the most shocking, abominable and needless menace to wildlife that the activity of man has yet created. ★