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The Disappearance of Millions of Newfoundland Seabirds

By Bill Montevecchi

(Reprint of Birds I View from the Northeast Avalon Times August 2017)

 

Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Oceanodroma leucorhoa. (By Seabamirum from Ithaca (Leach’s Storm Petrel) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Where have all the storm-petrels gone? Storm-petrels are the most abundant seabird breeding in eastern Canada. They appear at night in dizzying millions at major colonies on our coast. When a species is so prolific, population changes are actually often difficult to detect until they reach crisis proportions – think cod, capelin, caribou.

 

Seabirds are the primary indicators of ocean pollution. They have been the focus of environmental monitoring plans since offshore oil exploration began on the Grand Banks. Under the “regulation” of the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), these have been irrelevant paper exercises. The nocturnal Leach’s storm-petrel or carey chick as fishermen refer to them is the most vulnerable seabird to offshore platforms. These tiny robin-sized seabirds are attracted to platform flares and lights where they succumb to collisions, burning and oiling.

 

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Fall 2017 events with Nature NL

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Tell the City of St. John’s to reject the rezoning of Synod West Wetland

The City of St. John’s has received an application to rezone Synod West Wetland behind Penny Crescent (St. John’s, NL), from Open Space Reserve to Low Density Residential.

 

Citizens of are concerned with the application received by the City to develop 17.5 acres of urban wetland behind Penney Crescent in the East end of St. John’s into a housing development. This wetland has been classified as significant by the city since 1993. Urban wetlands have ecological, aesthetic and flood mitigation functions and its removal may have adverse effects on the local neighbourhood.

 

A public meeting will be held on Tuesday, August 8, 2017, at 7 p.m., Foran/Greene Room, fourth floor, City Hall to discuss the rezoning of this area from Open Space Reserve to a Residential Low Density Zone. Further information can be found on the public notice about the application.

 

If you support the protection of urban wetlands we urge you to send a signed written statement to the Office of the City Clerk either by mail: P.O. Box 908, St. John’s, NL, A1C 5M2; fax: 709-576-8474 or by email:  cityclerk@stjohns.ca. A letter of support is provided below that citizens may expand on and sign.

 

It is time to remind city council of the importance of urban wetlands and that a healthy environment is inextricably linked to the well-being of our community.

 

Download Letter of Support

Bidgoods Park Bird Walk

Bees, Agriculture and the Precautionary Principle

 

By Julie Sircom,  Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland

 

 

It’s hard to miss the news that Newfoundland’s honey bees are special – Varroa mite, a major pest elsewhere, is absent from the island, and several other diseases have not been found here. Many of the stressors that have led to declines elsewhere aren’t a problem here. Far less is known about the island’s native bees. There are over 70 species, from tiny solitary bees not much larger than an ant to the familiar fuzzy bumble bees. These bees provide a vital and largely unmeasured service, pollinating both crops and native plants. There would be no berry-picking in the autumn if it weren’t for our many native pollinators. Little is known about the health of our native bees, either in terms of the stability of their populations or the types of diseases that affect them.

 

There would be no berry-picking in the autumn if it weren’t for our many native pollinators.

 

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (www.cela.ca) defines the precautionary principle as the duty to do whatever we can to prevent harm, whether or not we have all of the evidence. In the case of Newfoundland’s pollinators, both the native species and the managed honey bees, this means avoiding the possible introduction of pests, disease, and alien species. There are two main ways this might happen: imports of honey bees and related equipment, and imports of the commercially-reared bumble bee Bombus impatiens. There are regulations regarding both, but the latter is seen as less of a threat, based on a number of assumptions.

 

Although imports of bumble bees were allowed in the past, no permits have been issued in recent years. Due to earlier imports, B. impatiens is currently considered to have low environmental risk. It has been assumed that the bees are disease-free as they are reared in a controlled environment and are not thought to share diseases with honey bees. The commercial nests are also equipped with queen excluders that are designed to prevent queens from leaving the nests and establishing new colonies. Furthermore, B. impatiens is a more southerly species and it is assumed that any escapees would be unable to survive Newfoundland’s harsher winters. All of these turn out to be questionable assumptions.

 

Common Eastern Bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) (Photo By Judy Gallagher [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons).

Import permits for B. impatiens have not been issued recently due to rising concern about the potential impact on local bees. Commercially-reared bumble bees have been shown to carry a number of parasites and diseases. These are almost certainly capable of infecting native bees, which may not have the defences to fight such infections. In addition, some of these pathogens are shared with honey bees. Parasite and disease transfer between B. impatiens and other bees is very simple: bees repeatedly visit the same flower as its nectar reserves are replenished. An infected bee can leave behind ‘hitchhikers’ that survive until the next bee visits the flower. Bees also visit other nests more frequently than you might imagine. If a native bee enters a B. impatiens nest to rob a little nectar, it can very easily become infected.

 

It is also clear that B. impatiens can overwinter in Newfoundland. Bumble bee nests die off at the end of the season, and only new queens overwinter. In 2015, B. impatiens was imported for supplemental pollination on a cranberry farm in Western Newfoundland. To the best of my knowledge, these were ‘used’ bees, from lowbush blueberry crops in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. This is obviously of concern, as they would have been exposed to a range of parasites and diseases in those fields. These nests either were not equipped with queen excluders because B. impatiens is native to the Maritime provinces, or were damaged; either way, an unknown number of queens escaped. In May and June 2016, I collected 24 B. impatiens queens on the farm. These must have come from the commercial nests imported the previous year; no B. impatiens were recorded in any other sampling location.

 

But what would happen if B. impatiens were to become established in Newfoundland?

 

So far, there is no sign that any of the queens successfully established a nest, but searching for a newly-established species is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But what would happen if B. impatiens were to become established in Newfoundland? Would it really matter? We don’t know, so the precautionary principle dictates that we do our best to avoid it happening.

 

One possible outcome is the displacement of native species. The queens of B. impatiens are larger than many of our native bees, and in 2016 they emerged early in the season. This raises the possibility of these queens establishing nests in prime locations before some native bees are even active, and usurping nesting sites from smaller native bees that are active at the same time. This includes one of the most abundant species, at least in Western Newfoundland, B. ternarius. This is a distinctive bumble bee with a broad orange band on its abdomen.

 

Bombus ternarius on Aster (Photo by Julie Sircom).

 

A pragmatist might ask why this matters, as long as there are bumble bees to perform the task of pollinating. However, if B. impatiens were to dominate the bumble bee community, important ecological resiliency would be lost. Our diverse native bee community is adapted to local conditions and provides insurance against our often unpredictable weather. If B. impatiens populations crashed, there may be few species to take up the slack. If parasites and diseases carried by these bees were passed to honey bees and led to colony losses, they would be unable to fill the pollination needs of agriculture. There are many other unknowns with regards to the extent of environmental effects of introduced B. impatiens. For example, I collaborated with Barry Hicks (College of the North Atlantic, Carbonear), on a study in Western Newfoundland that suggested that B. impatiens was a less efficient pollinator than native bees.

 

If Newfoundland is to preserve the special status of its honey bees, and protect its native pollinators, the precautionary principle must be applied. It is tempting to take the easy route that claims to provide reliable pollination and consistent crop yields, but we should have greater faith in our own resources. A few simple farming techniques, such as maintaining native flowering plants on field margins, can ensure a diverse and abundant pollinator community. Meanwhile, my research team and collaborators can continue to collect the missing evidence that will allow us to make informed choices about whether we need supplemental pollination, and how best to deliver it if we do.

 

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