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Barely trained observers hired to monitor wildlife impacts of offshore oil exploration

Wildlife observers with little to no experience — and no background in biology — are being deployed to monitor the environmental impact of oil exploration off the coast of Newfoundland, as companies hunt for new fields to develop in the multibillion-dollar industry.

Three seasoned observers, all with at least a decade of field experience, said they've recently worked alongside novice staff with no experience beyond one or two four-day courses.

All the observers contacted by CBC/Radio-Canada said they recently saw novice observers regularly miss and misidentify species, and data collected by these inexperienced observers on the environmental impact of seismic activity may be compromised.

Observer courses offered by Edgewise Environmental include a single day of field training. There are no prerequisites to take the training.

Federal regulations require "qualified" observers "trained to identity different species of marine mammals and turtles" to be aboard seismic vessels surveying undersea oil and gas reserves.

But those same regulations leave the professional training, and background required to be considered a "qualified" marine observer, largely undefined.

"Observers are one of three people on the boat who can shut down the seismic operations, which is a massive responsibility, and all they have is a four-day course? That doesn't add up to me," said Stephanie Leger, a biologist and wildlife observer with more than 10 years of experience.

"Background is so, so important for every other job on the boat. You can't really work as an engineer without being an engineer."

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada regulations[1], marine observers must be present aboard vessels during all seismic surveying, a process whereby air guns produce sound waves that hit the ocean floor.

Before any seismic activity can begin, observers must ensure an exclusion zone surrounding the guns is free of any marine mammals or turtles. Once the surveying starts, they have the authority to call a temporary halt to all seismic activity if a threatened or endangered species is spotted.

Biology degrees not required

Job offers posted to LinkedIn earlier this year by recruitment agency Dovre noted that observers have the "decision authority to delay or stop a multimillion-dollar seismic activity."

The observations are being made from a moving platform of a ship that's rolling around in an extremely harsh environment. - Ian Jones, faculty of biology, Memorial University

Offers posted by Dovre also showed that university-level biology certification is not required for the position, but said candidates needed experience identifying and observing marine life.

Dovre did not respond to emailed questions from CBC/Radio-Canada.

"It takes years of experience to be able to collect this kind of information in a rigorous, quantitative manner," said biologist Ian Jones of Memorial University in St. John's.

"The observations are being made from a moving platform of a ship that's rolling around in an extremely harsh environment. What is being observed is extremely difficult to observe, interpret and identify."

Ian Jones, a professor in the faculty of biology at Memorial University, says it's difficult to collect data in harsh conditions. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Ashley Noseworthy, founder and president of Edgewise Environmental, said her courses were never designed to certify elite-level marine observers.

In the absence of any widely available, Newfoundland-specific training for observers — outside certain environmental companies' in-house training — Noseworthy said she hoped to create a standard course on observing marine life in the province's offshore.

"The whole point of my business is to start building up that accreditation and the programs and giving people a basis to start with so that if they don't have that biology background they at least have something."

Previously, many observers went abroad for training, taking courses set up according to the regulatory regimes of other countries. 

Hole in regulations

In its guidelines on seismic work, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), the province's offshore regulator, explains that designated observers "trained in marine mammal and seabird observations" must follow monitoring protocols set out by Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Fisheries and Oceans directives for minimizing the impact of seismic activity on marine mammals do not require any specific training for offshore observers.

"We do not oversee the training and experience of marine mammal observers," a department spokesperson said.

If you don't set out those standards. then you know, the industry is just going to say, "OK, well, here are the rules and regulations." - Ashley Noseworthy, Edgewise Environmental

A statement from the Canadian Wildlife Service said the federal agency's protocol on seabird observers recommends they have theoretical and practical training, and they be taught by experienced observers.

However, the statement added the "Canadian Wildlife Service does not oversee approvals of observers for seismic vessels or oil platforms regulated by the C-NLOPB."

'There's nobody necessarily breaking the rules'

Noseworthy said the federal government should eliminate any vagueness in its regulations surrounding observer qualifications.

"There's nobody necessarily breaking the rules, because everybody's following the (DFO) Statement of Canadian Practice. The C-NLOPB makes sure that, for example, the seismic industry is providing marine mammal and seabird observers. Qualifications and whatnot, well, what is 'qualified' is yet to be defined," Noseworthy said.

"If you don't set out those standards. then you know, the industry is just going to say, 'OK, well, here are the rules and regulations.'... The Statement of Canadian Practice should be quite clear."

International comparisons

In a 2012 position statement, the Marine Mammal Observer Association, an international organization of observers, argued a training certificate "should not be the only requirement to qualify a person as an observer."[2]

The association said observers should have professional experience identifying and observing marine mammals, and collecting and assimilating data.

Other countries, notably New Zealand and Australia, have much stricter policies regarding wildlife observer qualifications.

In New Zealand, for instance, people looking to become marine observers must complete a government-certified training program. Afterward, candidates must shadow an experienced observer for at least 12 weeks before being deemed qualified.

Each week, observation data collected by wildlife observers aboard seismic ships must be reported to the C-NLOPB. A final report, including all work stoppages and delays due to marine mammal sightings, is also provided to the regulator once a surveying project is complete.

In a statement, the C-NLOPB said shutdowns due to marine mammal sightings have occurred "a few times, typically for very short durations."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador[3]

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