How flipping a light switch could save hundreds of seabirds in Bay de Verde

There just might be hundreds or even thousands of storm petrels that survive this fall because of a simple act at a Bay de Verde fish plant: turning off the lights.

The world’s largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels lives on Baccalieu Island off the northeastern tip of the Bay de Verde peninsula.

Seabird biologist Bill Montevecchi says there are millions of them on the island but their population has dropped dramatically in recent decades.

“Their population is half of what it was just 30 years ago.”

In August, many birds were turning up dead on the wharf near the fish plant in Bay de Verde.

Bill Montevecchi asked the fish plant manager if the lights could be turned down at night when the plant wasn’t in operation, and the manager agreed. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Montevecchi suspected the cause: light. The little brown birds are nocturnal and are attracted to light.

He thinks the lights at Quinlan’s fish plant in Bay de Verde were attracting the storm petrels at night, causing them to crash into the sides of the building. 

“Storm petrels eat something called a lantern fish, which is a really important food, and it’s bioluminescent. So that might be one reason they are attracted to light. Another reason is they might use stellar or lunar navigational cues and stuff like that, and for crazy reasons, yeah, they come into light.”

Montevecchi asked the fish plant manager to turn the lights out at night. The manager agreed to darken the plant when there’s no work scheduled. Since then, there have been no reports of dead storm petrels.

Storm petrels are most vulnerable in the fall as young birds get a feel for their wings.

The world’s largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels lives on Baccalieu Island, according to the ecological reserve on the island. (Len Wagg)

“This is the time of year we get most of the wrecks of the storm petrels because this when the young go to sea in September and October. So we expect to see lots of birds crashing on land going to lights,” said Montevecchi. 

The Memorial University professor says the fish plant has also agreed to collect any dead birds and tag them with the date to help determine if there might be other factors in their mortality. 

If there are other buildings along the coast where people feel lights could be dimmed, Montevecchi encourages them to get in touch with him.

“It’s just awesome that … the company took that initiative. It’s great when people can work together to solve the problem,” said Montevecchi.

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