We made a mistake.  The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld in part a complaint against Greenpeace New Zealand for our oiled-penguin advert which ran on TV3 and Prime TV in recent months.

The nub of the issue is that when we stated that “20,000 birds were killed by the Rena oil spill”, we should have said “An estimated 20,000 birds may have been killed by the Rena oil spill”.

We accept the findings in this regard and all future materials will be worded accordingly.

The ASA found that our statement that a deep sea oil spill could be 1000 times worse than the Rena was consistent with their guidelines and did not uphold the complaint against Greenpeace on that statement.

Still a couple of things need to be clarified.  The original figure of 20,000 is not from Greenpeace.  As the UK Guardian noted in January 2012:

“An editing change saw an estimate for bird deaths so far in the Rena spill attributed to Greenpeace. The estimate actually came from the specialist wildlife unit working as part of the [NZ] government's response team.”

That is correct.  We at Greenpeace New Zealand first encountered the figure of an estimated 20,000 bird deaths when it was reported by TV3 and attributed to Dr Brett Gartrell who was manager of the official Rena spill Wildlife Response Centre.  Our mistake was not in generating a figure as some suggest, but in failing to clarify that that figure of 20,000 is an estimate.

Of course it is impossible to know exactly how may birds died as a consequence of the Rena spill or as a consequence of any oil spill. All such figures are estimates based primarily on the number of carcasses recovered.  It is accepted that only a percentage of birds killed by a spill actually washed ashore and are found i.e. aren’t scavenged, carried out to sea, buried in the sand or simply sink, as most birds in the sea do within 10-20 days of dying.

Dr Gartrell appears to have taken the figure of a 2000 bird body-count and referenced a  general rule of thumb that the body count represents only 10% of the overall mortality(1).

Ten times 2000 equals 20,000.

Oil on the beach in the Bay of Plenty

It would certainly be good to have a formal scientific estimate on the death toll from the Rena.

The fact remains that oil kills seabirds (and other oceanic species) and that even small quantities of oil are enough to kill a bird.

According to the US Government’s Fish and Game Department, an oil blot the size of a nickel (similar in scale to an NZ 20c coin) is enough to kill a bird due to destroying the insulative properties of the bird’s plumage.

We know for certain that around 350 tonnes of oil was enough to kill many seabirds and inundate parts of the Bay of Plenty coastline with oil for days and weeks.  The Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil spill was an estimated 627,000 tonnes of oil, which for the record, is more than 1000 times more oil than escaped the Rena.

The government’s fervent drive for fossil fuel expansion means that deep sea oil drilling is due to begin in our coastal waters as soon as the end of this year off the shores of Canterbury and Otago.  The Rena spill was a warning of just how devastating oil spills can be for our oceans, wildlife and coastal communities.  The harm risked by deep sea oil drilling is much greater. 

That was the message of our ads and that message is as true as ever.

(1) Tanis & Morzer Bruijns, 1968; Bourne, 1970; National Research Council, 1985