Inside the Barrow’s Goldeneye: Exploring effects of oil contamination on marine wildlife

November 28, 2016

Part four of our 10-part Stantec R&D Fund 10th Anniversary Series takes us to the shores of British Columbia during an oil spill.


Megan returns to Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet to reflect on the effects of hydrocarbon exposure on marine wildlife.

Megan Willie’s love of birds began during her studies at Ontario’s University of Guelph with a marine mammal and seabird field course that she took in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. “I really gained an appreciation and a love for marine wildlife, and birds in particular,” says Megan. “Canada’s coastal environments can be harsh places to live so it’s always amazed me that small, seemingly vulnerable creatures actually thrive under such conditions.”

After joining Stantec in 2008, Megan—a wildlife biologist in Burnaby, British Columbia—has focused her work on marine birds on BC’s coast. “The health of these coastal habitats is essential for the health of marine wildlife and the potential consequences for mammals and birds in the event of an oil spill can be extensive,” says Megan.

An unanswered question begged
Megan saw an opportunity to explore a question that hasn’t yet been answered on the BC coast: How are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—carcinogenic chemicals released by coal, oil, tobacco, and other organic compounds—from chronic oil contamination affecting marine wildlife? For support in pursuing that answer through sound scientific research, Megan turned to Stantec’s R&D fund (now Greenlight), part of our Creativity & Innovation Program.



Megan focused her research on two prominent coastal regions (see map). Burrard Inlet, where you’ll find Vancouver’s iconic Stanley Park, separates the low-lying city from the mountainous northern shore. About 650 kilometers (400 miles) up the BC coast—as the seabird flies—is Douglas Channel, an important shipping route. Both areas include industrial, commercial, and recreational activity, with further development being proposed. 


Megan’s research included multiple sampling locations on two prominent British Columbia waterways, Douglas Channel in the north and Burrard Inlet in the south.


When selecting a species to study, Megan opted for the Barrow’s Goldeneye, a diving duck that winters on the BC coast in large numbers where it feeds almost exclusively on blue mussels. Mussels exposed to PAHs store the compounds in their tissues. This can make mussels a toxic food source for animals higher up the food chain, like the Barrow’s Goldeneye.

When Barrow’s Goldeneyes eat mussels, the PAHs get stored in the birds’ tissues and can be measured using biomarkers (or physiological responses triggered by exposure). “Birds that consume contaminated prey on a regular basis are more likely to express physical or reproductive effects from long-term PAH exposure,” says Megan.

Researching during an oil spill
There were two components to Megan’s data collection. First, she measured PAH in blue mussels sampled from several locations in Douglas Channel and Burrard Inlet. Then Megan worked with a team from Environment and Climate Change Canada who was funded by the government’s World-Class Tanker Safety System initiative. The team set out in late winter to collect liver samples from flocks of Barrow’s Goldeneye in the same locations. “This way, we could be sure that any hydrocarbon exposure in the birds had come from locally consumed mussels versus something they had picked up during migration,” she says.


Megan and her Environment and Climate Change Canada team partners use a mist net to capture Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks in Burrard Inlet. A 2011 study on mist netting showed that, “compared to other techniques, mist netting has low rates of incident when conducted with bird safety precautions in mind and adequate training.” (Photo credit: Ruth Foster, Pacific Wildlife Foundation)


Using a mist net (see image), Megan and her team captured the birds and brought them to waiting veterinary staff, who performed non-lethal, low-impact liver biopsies. The birds were then released back into the wild and the liver samples were tested for enzyme activity. “Elevated enzyme activity indicates whether a bird has been exposed to a very specific suite of organic pollutants, including the PAHs I was looking for.”

Coincidentally, while Megan was collecting Burrard Inlet samples in April 2015, there was an oil spill near Stanley Park. Although the spill didn’t impact Megan’s sampling area, it did put things in perspective for her. “The spill highlighted the importance of our need to understand the current rates of contaminants so that when these spills occur, we can understand how they will affect the organisms that are inhabiting that area.”

The results
Megan’s research confirmed two main ideas. “The findings indicate that yes, birds are showing signs of PAH exposure, which suggests that there are continual inputs of oil into marine systems, particularly in developed coastal areas,” she says. “And, in general, compared to Douglas Channel, we’re also seeing higher rates and levels of exposure among birds from Burrard Inlet, which is relatively more developed than many parts of BC’s northern coast.”

The research provides a current baseline measure of hydrocarbon exposure patterns for birds along the BC coast, information that didn’t exist before. “This baseline allows governments and industry better understand the intensity of cleanup efforts and the level of remediation that could be required following a spill,” says Megan. Good news for the Barrow’s Goldeneye and other species trying to thrive in an already challenging environment.

About Megan
Megan Willie is responsible for the planning, design, and implementation of terrestrial wildlife and marine bird baseline studies and inventories throughout British Columbia. She helps clients navigate permitting and regulatory requirements as they work through their environmental assessment process.

About this article
Stantec is celebrating the 10th anniversary of our Research and Development (R&D) Fund—now called Greenlight. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests $2 million annually into our employees’ big ideas, with half the funds earmarked for scientific R&D initiatives. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which nurtures the efforts of our people to apply any idea that benefits us, our clients, or our communities, and enhances our reputation, competitive position, and ultimately our financial performance. In the coming months, we’ll be profiling 10 of our R&D grant recipients and their work, so check back often for more stories.

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