Category Archives: Marine life in the Gulf

With over 2,000 species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, this section could be much larger! Included here is info about various species, including endangered species, and the threats posed by the fossil fuel industry.

Offshore seismic testing puts wildlife at risk, biologist fears ~ Halifax Media Co-op

November 21st, 2013

Are blasting airguns jeopardizing Atlantic Ocean’s ecosystem?

by Robert Devet
Halifax Media Co-op
November 21, 2013

K’JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX – Nova Scotia’s offshore oil and gas production is on the upswing. Natural gas is flowing from the Deep Panuke natural gas field on the Scotian Shelf.

And now there are two new kids on the block. This time it’s oil they are after.

Shell Canada spent the summer mapping the geology of a large area in the Shelburne Basin about 300 kilometers south east of Halifax. Next summer BP Exploration (Canada) will follow suit.

Shell for one is happy with the results of its discovery effort. “The initial indication is that the data we’re seeing looks really good,” Shell spokesperson Larry Lalonde told the Chronicle Herald in early September of this year. “We’re quite excited about what we are seeing.”

But local environmental activists are worried. And the concern is not just about spills like the one we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Concerns emerge even in this early discovery stage when geologists are determining how much oil there really is, and where exactly that oil can be found.

Problem is, that discovery process is a very noisy affair.

Seismic testing involves the use of airguns fired from moving ships. The airguns generate loudblasts below the ocean’s surface approximately every 20 seconds. The nature of the resulting seismic waves allow geologists to map the geological strata below the ocean floor.

Many environmentalists believe that the noise generated by airguns, almost as loud as dynamite explosions, has a profoundly negative effect on fish, sea turtles and whales in the seismic testing area.

Beaked Whales spend 98% of their time below the surface and are unlkely to be spotted by observers on board of the seismic testing vessels, biologist Lindy Weilgart tells the Halifax Media Co-op. Photo: WikiCommons.

Beaked Whales spend 98% of their time below the surface and are unlikely to be spotted by observers on board of the seismic testing vessels, biologist Lindy Weilgart tells the Halifax Media Co-op. Photo: WikiCommons.

Lindy Weilgart, a Dalhousie University research associate in Biology, has studied the effects of seismic testing on marine wildlife since she was a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University.

Biologist Lindy Weilgart believes more can be done to protect marine wildlife from seismic testing off the coast of Nova Scotia. Photo: Dalhousie University

Biologist Lindy Weilgart believes more can be done to protect marine wildlife from seismic testing off the coast of Nova Scotia. Photo: Dalhousie University

“When the airgun is fired you actually see a bubble coming to the surface, air is released under incredibly high pressure, and with a very sharp onset,” says Weilgart. “One shot, and if you don’t have ear protectors on you can go deaf.”

Weilgart is not just worried that sea creatures find themselves too close to the airguns and suffer permanent hearing damage. There are other reasons why seismic testing is particularly hard on ocean dwellers, says Weilgart.

Although under water sound drops off faster, it carries much further than it does on land. The sound of the airguns can be heard as far as 4,000 kilometers away. Combine that with how crucial sound is for fish and sea mammals, and you have a big problem.

“Often it is the quiet signals that are important,” says Weilgart. “For instance, fin whales have to listen for the sounds of potential mates, to meet up. For them it could mean the difference between a mating opportunity or not.”

And not just whales. Weilgart mentions studies that show that fish make very poor decisions about handling their prey when in a noisy environment. Even squid are affected.

The impact of seismic testing on ocean wildlife is complex. Weilgart gives example after example to drive home this point.

“We have to look at it in the way the animal experiences it, we have to be animal-centric,” says Weilgart. And behaviour isn’t always a good indicator of what is really going on.

“Sometimes the most vulnerable and most desperate of the individuals will stay, not because they aren’t bothered by the seismic testing, but because they can’t afford to leave, they don’t have the luxury,” says Weilgart.

Sea creatures are not just facing this one seismic survey, they are dealing with other noise sources as well, says Weilgart. Ships, the bow thrusters of oil platforms, the seismic ships themselves make noise.

Then there is stress caused by overfishing and loss of prey, climate change and warming of the oceans, acidification, the list goes on.

Environmental approval for this summer’s seismic testing by Shell was granted by the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board, an independent joint federal-provincial agency that regulates all offshore oil and gas activities.

It’s written approval of this summer’s seismic testing effort states that it is not likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects, especially given the precautionary measures to which Shell has committed.

Those precautionary measures consist of independent monitors who travel on board of the ships and watch for whales and turtles, and sensors that pick up sounds made by whales below the ocean surface. Work stops immediately when there is any sign that such ocean wildlife is present.

Mark Butler, Policy Director at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, does not think that is good enough.

What monitors are able to observe is just the tip of the iceberg, Butler says. Thick fog and big waves can make it very difficult to see a tail flick somewhere in that vast expanse of ocean.

Butler is also not happy that the exploration by Shell was taking place during the summer. He believes that it is better to stop seismic testing during sensitive periods.

“People don’t realize how much life comes into our waters in the spring and summer to feed, it’s like a highway out there,” says Butler.

This is why Butler asked that Shell postpone the seismic testing until later in the year, but Shell refused, arguing that the project was already approved and that bad weather in winter was too much of a risk to the crew.

“If you are striving, as some would perhaps suggest, for no environmental impact than there would be no man-made activities on land or on sea,” says Stuart Pinks, CEO of the Offshore Petroleum Board.

“But the purpose of the environmental assessment is to make sure that there is no significant adverse impact and to minimize any impact that has been identified to the lowest extent possible,” Pinks says.

Minimizing impact may be a matter of degree, but for Weilgart we’re not cautious enough.

“You can’t keep asking the animal to adapt, there is not enough luxury and play in the system,” says Weilgart. “The oceans are not doing well, and now you are throwing this at them.”

“At the very minimum you have to be precautionary.”

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert

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Krill ~ a key component of the ocean ecosystem

May 22nd, 2013

Krill (Photo:

Krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans found in all of the world’s oceans. As a key component of the ocean ecosystem, krill are directly linked to the survival of many marine species.

Many seabirds, whales and fish rely on krill as an integral part of their diets. Worldwide, ocean wildlife is estimated to consume between 150 and 300 million metric tons of krill each year.

Wild salmon eat krill; it’s what makes their meat healthy and pink. The blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived, feeds exclusively on tiny krill. Emperor penguins march hundreds of miles every year to eat krill.

Krill are harvested to feed farmed fish, removing a food source for the wild creatures that depend on them. The results could be catastrophic for the marine food web.


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A Deaf Whale is a Dead Whale: Seismic Airgun Testing for Oil and Gas Threatens Marine Life and Coastal Economies ~ new report from Oceana

May 3rd, 2013

From the US based group

According to government estimates, 138,500 whales and dolphins will soon be injured and possibly killed along the East Coast if exploration companies are allowed to use dangerous blasts of noise to search for offshore oil and gas.seismic_report_cover

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) is considering allowing geophysical companies, working on behalf of oil and gas companies, to use seismic airguns to search for offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean, from Delaware to Florida. These airguns use compressed air to generate intense pulses of sound, which are 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine.

These loud blasts are used on a recurring basis, going off every ten seconds, for 24 hours a day, often for weeks on end. They are so loud that they penetrate through the ocean, and miles into the seafloor, then bounce back, bringing information to the surface about the location of buried oil and gas deposits.

Airgun blasts harm whales, dolphins, sea turtles and fish. The types of impacts marine mammals may endure include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, beach strandings and even death. Seismic airguns could devastate marine life, and harm fisheries and coastal economies along the Atlantic coast. Seismic testing in the Atlantic would also be the first major step toward offshore drilling, which further harms the marine environment through leaks, oil spills, habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions.

This seismic testing, and all of the consequences that may ensue, are unnecessary because there cannot be any drilling in the Atlantic for at least the next five years, and oil and gas companies already own undeveloped leases on millions of acres of federal lands and water.

Follow the conversation on Twitter at #seismic

Watch this short video – What is Seismic Airgun Testing?

Download a copy of “A Deaf Whale is a Dead Whale: Seismic Airgun Testing for Oil and Gas Threatens Marine Life and Coastal Economies” (PDF)

Click here to learn more about seismic testing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

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Sierra Club Atlantic’s Earth Day message highlights protection of Gulf of St. Lawrence and endangered blue whale

April 22nd, 2013

Happy Earth Day!

I never thought I’d say this, but right now climate change may be least of the blue whale’s problems.

Our federal and provincial governments have not stepped up to stop oil and gas development and protect habitat for the endangered blue whale – and the thousands of other creatures that live in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

blue whales

If Corridor and other oil companies get their way, we could have an oil spill like BP’s in the blue whale’s highway – a major migratory pathway for these amazing creatures, the largest mammals on the planet! A BP-scale oil spill would coat the beaches and shorelines of five of Canada’s ten provinces. Blue whales and their calves already navigate an underwater world that is blaring with man-made noise, criss-crossed by ship traffic, and thrown into chaos by climate change.

But they would not survive an oil spill.

The original Earth Day happened before I was born. But I know one of the major reasons for having this annual day to celebrate our connection to the Earth was a major oil spill that marred the coast of California, smothering dolphins and seals.

We need your help now more than ever to stand up for the Gulf of St Lawrence  – for the blue whale, for our heritage, and for our future! Become a member of Sierra Club today!

Sierra Club members have been standing up for wild spaces like the Gulf for decades, as well as pushing for clean green solutions to climate change – solutions that we know are at our fingertips!

But it’s not just the Gulf that we are committed to protecting. With your help, we are committed to tackling the big issues facing our region and Canada, like fracking and promoting truly sustainable economic opportunities. When you join Sierra Club, you help us:

– Fight the destruction of our environmental laws;
– Stop pipeline projects that enhance the expansion of the tar sands;
– Promote practical and sustainable solutions to climate change like renewable energy and energy efficiency; and
– Work with children and youth to foster love of nature and community engagement.

Your membership also allows you to enjoy the regular updates on national and local issues, participate in action alerts, and have a say in our organization by voting for our leaders.

Most importantly, you will find out how to be a force for change.  By joining Sierra Club, you will know that your support has made a difference!

Please join us or make an Earth Day membership gift to make sure our worst fears for the blue whale do not become a reality!


Gretchen Fizgerald
Sierra Club Canada – Atlantic Canada Chapter

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Canadian singer-songwriter pens song for the Gulf “Disregard the Fish”

April 6th, 2013

Watch “Disregard the Fish” – a protest song against oil and gas development in the Gulf featuring singer-songwriter Lizzie Shanks on vocals, soaring over imagery of the existing beauty of the now pristine Gulf of St. Lawrence, juxtaposed against the devastating realities in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. theheliotropeproject

Save Our Seas and Shores is grateful to Lizzie Shanks and Carey Gurden of  The Heliotrope Project for the gift of this moving vocal and visual tribute to the Gulf! Spread it around folks!

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The Gulf of St. Lawrence and Its Estuary by Gray Merriam

April 2nd, 2013

April 4, 2013
This beautiful ecological narrative and photographic essay describes the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River. The author highlights this productive ecosystem’s krill, whales, human culture, landscapes, geological history, currents, tides, endangered species and the need for the precautionary principle. This article gives us a good understanding of the ecology of the Gulf. A must read!

From Gary Merriam’s Ecological Blog
Gray Merriam, Ph.D., D.Sc., Professor Emeritus in Landscape Ecology and Environmental Science, has published about fifty scientific papers and book chapters, and is a past-president of the International Association of Landscape Ecologists (IALE). He holds awards for Distinguished Landscape Ecologist form the U.S. chapter of the association. Gray lives on the Salmon River, Ontario, with his wife, Aileen, painter and lake steward.

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Blue whale feeding ecology in the St. Lawrence River estuary

March 22nd, 2013

Blue Whale photo: Thomas Doniol-Valcroze

Authors: Véronique Lesage, Thomas Doniol-Valcroze

Feeding is central to an animal’s life history and ecology. Large predators do not feed continuously but rather in bouts of intense activity separated by periods of searching, resting or socializing. Moreover, feeding does not occur randomly in space, as animals select precise areas with characteristics of prey density, accessibility and predictability that maximize their chances of meeting their energy requirements. Every summer, blue whales from the endangered North Atlantic population come to the St Lawrence River estuary to feed on dense aggregations of euphausiids. Documenting the timing and location of foraging success is therefore of utmost importance to assess and monitor habitat quality on this feeding ground.

In marine systems, however, feeding happens mostly under the surface and is rarely observable directly. In this study, we have used data-loggers to record, at every second, the depth and swimming speed of 10 blue whales during their dives in the St Lawrence estuary. By detecting the rapid speed changes that are characteristic of lunging behaviour and mouth opening, we have been able to pinpoint the exact moment, depth and location of each feeding attempt. With this information, we have shown that blue whales feed at all times of the diurnal cycle and intensify their feeding activity at night when prey are accessible at shallow depths. This is in contrast to previous assumptions in the literature that blue whales did not feed at night.

Using radio-telemetry, we have also been able to describe the habitats where blue whales concentrated their feeding effort, and how different habitats were used at different phases of the tidal cycle (e.g., feeding at the shelf edge when flood tidal currents were concentrating euphausiids against the steep slopes).

Moreover, we have shown that St Lawrence blue whales used optimal strategies to adapt their dive times and feeding effort to the depth of their prey. In particular, feeding rates were consistently higher when blue whales performed short feeding dives at shallow depths. These results suggest that diving predators may judge habitat quality in terms of prey accessibility at shallow depths rather than selecting habitat solely based on prey density or abundance.

Taken together, these strategies may allow blue whales to optimize a short seasonal window of feeding opportunity and maximize resource acquisition. Indeed, feeding rates diminished over the summer feeding season, and were negatively correlated with the time each animal spent in a social pair, suggesting a trade-off between feeding and socializing with the approach of the breeding season. Better understanding of the behaviour and feeding ecology of large whales can help predict their responses to environmental changes and anthropogenic pressures.

This project was conducted in collaboration with Robert Michaud and Janie Giard from the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals in Tadoussac, Quebec.

Excerpt from Department of Fisheries and Oceans Center of Expertise in Marine Mammalogy: Scientific Research Report 2009-2011

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DFO report characterizes and maps habitat in Gulf of St. Lawrence

March 21st, 2013

Characterizing Habitats to Better Protect Species at Risk

In the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence, the biological diversity is remarkable, and reflects this vast area’s wide range of environmental conditions. There, each species has a suitable environment for its survival, and the combination of the environment’s characteristics makes up its habitat. Some of these species are at risk, and so they are protected by the Species at Risk Act. When a species is at risk, its habitat must be protected to facilitate its recovery. But what exactly is this habitat? Where is it, and what are its characteristics?

To protect a species’s habitat, it is first necessary to locate it, then to define its main characteristics. This is what Jean-Denis Dutil’s team worked on for almost a year at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli. After making an inventory of the existing data, the researcher and his team created a large database with information on several parameters. Relief, depth, seabed nature and slope, salinity, temperature, and oxygen availability are only a few of the sixty or so variables compiled to describe an area extending over 225 000 km2.

The data were organized spatially: the area covered was divided into cells of 10 km by 10 km (100 km2). Using the 2432 cells for which all the data were available, the researchers then defined the main habitat types, which they named megahabitats. These habitats are groups of cells with the same characteristics. In order to identify the habitats, all of the cells were first divided into two main groups. Then, both of the two groups were further divided into two, and so on and so on, according to their environmental properties. In the end, the research team identified 13 main megahabitats, as shown in Figure 1.

While many scientific disciplines had a way to describe specific aspects of the habitat of at-risk species, no one to date had a general overview. The database compiled by Mr. Dutil’s team was designed specifically to remedy this situation. This project has provided a spatially integrated database, allowing the user to identify which habitat each of the 2432 cells belongs to, as well as its characteristics. The georeferenced data can be mapped variable by variable, or cells that meet a specific set of criteria can be selected, simply by inputting catch data spatially, i.e. by cell, to assess each habitat’s contribution to each species examined, for example, an at-risk species. Each megahabitat corresponds to a specific species assemblage.

Spatial distribution of megahabitats (Source: DFO)

 Deep water areas
A: Deep water areas
Shallow water areas, southern Gulf
B: Shallow water areas, southern Gulf
Shallow water areas, lower estuary and northern Gulf
C: Shallow water areas, lower estuary and northern Gulf


The habitat characterization exercise is currently being conducted in order to better define coastal and pelagic areas (less than 30 m deep). This time, 128 variables and 39 337 6.25-km2 cells are being used to analyze the area. Constant referential improvement will make it a powerful tool for protecting critical habitats of at-risk species using an ecosystem-based approach. This approach considers not only the species to protect, but also those it depends on or in its environment, as well as their habitat.

This project’s full report is available at:

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Gulf NS Herring Federation and SOSS submission to Strategic Environmental Assessment

October 22nd, 2012

Gulf NS Herring and SOSS Sea submission – CNLOPB – 3

Submission to Western NL Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) by Gulf NS Herring Federation and Save Our Seas and Shores, October 22, 2012. Authors Greg Egilsson (President – Gulf NS Herring Federation) and Mary Gorman (Save Our Seas and Shores). The 5 page submission critiques the flawed public process, which falls far short of what Environment Minister Peter Kent ordered, and addresses:

  • the historical involvement of Save Our Seas and Shores in protecting the Gulf from oil and gas development
  • background facts on the inshore fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
  • precautionary principle
  • current science and knowledge gaps about the ecosystem
  • mitigation myths
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A must read! Hydrocarbons development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: A challenge for policy and ecosystem sustainability

November 1st, 2011


This superb article gives a scientific view on the challenges posed by oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem. We consider this to be a foundation document to all who are trying to understand the issues. Authors: Chantal Gagnon, Master of Resource and Environmental Management and Irene Novaczek, PhD, Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island. (November 2011)

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