Tragedy or statistic?

What is a dead bird worth in Canada? It’s a relevant question, given the news that more than a hundred birds died in tailings ponds in Northern Alberta. If the companies are fined, how much should they have to pay?

The value of a single bird depends on whether you are a private citizen or a large company. Evidence for this came back in February, when a resident of Alberta made the news for being charged with illegal sale of wildlife parts. The Crown alleges that she illegally purchased an eagle wing, and if convicted she could face a fine as high as $100,000. She could even go to prison.

But what if, instead of a private citizen, it was a large company that killed the bird? Furthermore, what if instead of killing one bird, thousands were killed by an industrial activity?

It turns out that this scenario happened in 2010, when Syncrude was issued the largest penalty in Alberta’s history for its role in the deaths of 1,606 ducks in one of the company’s tailings ponds two years prior. They were fined $3 million for the crime, or about $1,870 per duck. 

The difference in the magnitude of the two fines ($100,000 vs. $1,870) is obvious. But even so, this is not a fair comparison – the relative value of a dollar depends on how much you earn per year. To understand the relative impacts of these fines, we need to scale the fines based on annual income.

The median income in Alberta is $90k per year. Assuming our perpetrator earns this, her fine represents 1.1 times her annual income for the one bird that she was responsible for killing.

If Syncrude, with its $7 billion annual revenue, were assessed a fine at the same rate, they would have been fined over $12 trillion, or just shy of the GDP of the United States, for killing those 1606 birds.

Flipping it around, Syncrude’s fine per bird death was worth 0.00000027 of a year’s revenue. If our private citizen was fined at this rate, she would have been charged about 2 cents.

Now you may be thinking that this comparison isn’t fair – after all, aren’t bald eagles more at-risk than whatever ducks were killed in Syncrude’s tailings pond? Not necessarily – bald eagles are not endangered, so it is unlikely that one alleged poacher would have much of an impact on the population. By contrast, an uncovered tailings pond that kills birds by the hundreds certainly can – and such deaths may go completely unpunished.

If we’re serious about conservation in Canada, we need to apply the rules – and the penalties – in ways that make sense.

This whole situation reminds me of the famous quote: A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. So which is it?