Assessing and managing the ecological risk to leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) from marine oil pollution in Atlantic Canada
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The critically endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) migrates annually into Canadian waters. The species has been listed under the Canadian Species at Risk Act (2002) since 2003. The act legally requires the federal government to protect leatherbacks from anthropogenic threats, including exposure to marine oil pollution. However, to what extent oil pollution puts leatherbacks in Atlantic Canada at risk is unknown. This study conducted a quantitative ecological risk assessment to address this question. It was determined that oil pollution from coastal refineries, ships, small engine vessels, and oil and gas exploration and production is a risk to leatherback survival, particularly if a catastrophic oil spill were to occur similar to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Exposure to oil through ingestion or dermal contact was predicted to be harmful and possibly fatal to leatherbacks. Following the risk assessment, an analysis of risk management strategies currently employed by the federal government was done. This analysis looked at the environmental assessment process for marine oil and gas development projects, the aerial observation program used to discourage illegal oil pollution by vessels, and current oil spill response procedures in relation to the risk of marine oil pollution to leatherbacks. The finding of greatest concern was the failure to effectively employ expert opinion and resources in the assessment and mitigation of the risk. Both the environmental assessments and the emergency response plans did not adequately address the risk of marine oil pollution to leatherbacks in Atlantic Canada.