It can get pretty ugly down in the murky bilge of a ship’s hull. Captains operating in Canadian waters are, by law, required to purify the mixture of sea water, fuel and machine oil that collects there before pumping it out to sea. But too often they just dump the mess untreated, leaving a dense, brown oil slick that disfigures the ocean’s surface.
And it’s more than merely an aesthetic issue. Francis Wiese, a doctoral student in biology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, combs beaches along Newfoundland's south coast looking for washed-up seabirds. The oil breaks down the waterproofing in feathers
and the birds die of hypothermia in the bone-chilling waters. Each year, says Wiese, bilge oil kills 300,000 seabirds in Atlantic Canada-the same number that died in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
The Grand Banks, off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland, are the most important wintering grounds for seabirds in the North
Atlantic. They are also in the middle of the major shipping routes between North America and Europe. As a result, keeping the birds safe is proving difficult. Last year, Transport Canada prosecuted 14 vessels under the Canada Shipping Act for dumping in the Atlantic. “We take this crime very seriously,” says Paul Doucet, of Transport Canada.
But Robert Rangeley, of World Wildlife Fund Canada, disagreesand points out a problem with the penalties. In Canada, each conviction for illegal dumping carries a maximum fine of $1 million and three years in jail. However, in 2001, the fines for the Atlantic region
only amounted to $226,000, with the maximum reaching a mere $40,000. That’s a far cry from the $700,000 fine handed out in the U.S. in 1997 for a single conviction or the $615,000 penalty levied to one vessel in Britain in 1998. And while those were much bigger incidents, the ones closer to home still add up. According to Rangeley, the leniency of the Canadian courtsand ineffective surveillance-are reason enough for lazy captains to pump their bilges out in Canadian waters. “It’s pretty clear we’ve got a chronic oil pollution problem,” he says, “and Canada is not doing its share.” John DeMont
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