Nfld. & Labrador

More eyes in the air for pollution patrols off N.L

Transport Canada has restored money for offshore aerial patrols, increasing flying hours will from 319 last year to 1,100 this year.

Environmentalists say patrols essential to preventing 'mystery spills' at sea

Louis Armstrong, chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Jan-Andrej Skopalik, senior technologist, Ken Derouin, surveillance officer, Danny Daigle, pilot, and Bill Cody, pilot (left to right), stand in front of a Transport Canada Dash 7 surveillance plane. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

More Transport Canada eyes will be in the air checking for oil spills following a recent funding decision.

The federal department and PAL Aerospace will fly for a combined 1,100 hours this year, nearly quadruple the number of hours patrolled in 2016-17.

Last year the lead department responsible for preventing pollution from ships cut flying hours off Newfoundland and Labrador to just 319 patrol hours compared to 1,276 in 2013-2014.

Louis Armstrong, chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance with Transport Canada, said funding has now been restored.

Louis Armstrong will be keeping an eye on ships off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

"It's kind of analogous to a police car parked alongside of the roadway," said Armstrong. 

"If you were driving to work today and saw a cop car parked alongside of the road, tomorrow morning when you passed by there you'd probably slow down and you wouldn't speed because you'd think police were watching for you."

'Single greatest deterrent'

It was welcome news for environmentalists such as Stan Tobin who has seen the impact on seabirds when bilge water is dumped by ships at sea.

"That dedicated aerial surveillance program was probably the single greatest deterrent to that scourge, that oily bird problem," Tobin said.

The so-called mystery spills killed anywhere from 60,000 to 300,000 birds a year according to federal government estimates.

A mystery spill over a 10-day period in 1997 saw 2,700 oiled birds recovered around Placentia and St. Mary's.

None of them survived.

The situation prompted a report in 2001 called POW, the Prevention of Oiled Wildlife Project.

One of its key recommendations was that the aerial surveillance program off the coast of N.L. be expanded to 600 hours a year.

Stan Tobin uses his 85 half-ton Chev pickup to help count seabirds on the Avalon Peninsula. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

With the flying hours back, Stan Tobin is pleased.

He's seen the value in the aerial surveillance program over the years as he conducted beach surveys looking for oiled birds.

"You could see the numbers going down, down, down, down, down," Tobin said. 

"To do the beach surveys once a week it was almost a lonely thing — you were finding no birds hardly at all."

Discharges from ships offshore have all been eliminated through surveillance and tougher enforcement of laws and most spills these days are small.

Armstrong said there were 246 oil spills in Canada last year, and 20 in Newfoundland and Labrador.  He said 75 per cent of them were under 10 litres.