Galveston Bay Oil Spill: What We Birders Can Do

The March 22 spill of 168,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker fuel into Galveston Bay can be expected to take a huge toll on migrating, nesting, and still-wintering birds. If you want to donate money to help, Houston Audubon seems to be the go-to organization right now. But whether or not you can make a financial contribution, if you spend time on the Texas coast this spring, you can make a vitally important difference in what happens next, by submitting the sightings of every oiled bird you see into eBird. Enter the species, numbers, time, and place as always, and for each bird click “Add Details,” then click “Oiled Birds.” Provide photos whenever possible.

Even though eBird can be the perfect repository for this wealth of data, how can entering bird sightings actually help this horrible situation?

After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, volunteers and professionals descended upon Alaska in huge numbers. Some volunteers may have gotten in the way here and there, but with all those eyes and cameras bearing witness to the devastation, there was no way that Exxon could hide the environmental damage and the toll on wildlife. The final tally for oiled birds was between 100,000 and 250,000 oiled seabirds and at least 247 Bald Eagles. Thanks to the huge public outcry, the issue of single-hulled tankers was kept alive, and a great deal of pressure was put on Congress to enact legislation to strengthen protections for our vital waterways.

After the BP spill in 2010, I was disillusioned to see how dramatically things had changed. Only a handful of volunteers and very few professionals went to the Gulf. Marge Gibson, past president of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and the woman who led the team recovering oiled Bald Eagles after the Exxon Valdez spill, was turned away from helping—literally prohibited from providing her valuable expertise—as were countless other specialists experienced in retrieving oiled pelicans and other birds along the Florida and California coasts. BP, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation organizations, and the media gave out phone numbers for people to call if they wanted to help, and those of us who called were told we’d be notified if our services were necessary, but I know of no one who was ever called back. Qualified people with years of expertise in helping animals after oil spills waited for phone calls or email that never came. Marge Gibson waited for months with her bags packed.

Marge writes:

What changed between the Exxon and BP spills was that the companies learned from what they considered Exxon’s P.R. mistakes.  They learned that preventing access to the area and trying to minimize photographic evidence was the way to go.  If the public doesn’t see it, it does not exist.  Exxon has been judged severely for the Valdez accident, but in fact, after the spill they did their honest best, enlisting top scientists worldwide that were not just suits—they wore survival gear because they were physically on site—in ships and on the ground.  I was there. I worked with them.

That spill was an open book not only for the public, but for the scientists that worked on it.  B.P. decided that was not good because scientists document their work and put the data and their findings in the literature where it is available forever. The scientists who were allowed to produce studies in the aftermath of the BP spill had to sign away their rights to publish any of them for at least 5 years.

Yes, Exxon made mistakes. But it wasn’t Exxon who declared that oil companies could use single hulls again. Exxon allowed every aspect of the spill and the cleanup to be an open book. We could have learned how to reduce the potential for future spills, but all that seems to have been learned is how to do more effective cover-ups to minimize liability as much as humanly possible.

From the standpoint of wildlife conservation, the specific critical change between the 1989 Exxon spill and the 2010 BP spill is in the protocol for counting oiled animals—the only means of assessing damage to wildlife. After the Exxon spill, EVERY oiled animal that was seen was counted. Even though a quarter million oiled birds were documented, this number is considered by most authorities to be a gross underestimate, considering the huge area involved and how many birds, tiny and large, washed away undetected in the vast ocean.

With the BP spill, the new policy was to count only those oiled birds that were physically collected—picked up dead or alive. Minimizing the toll further, only a handful of people were authorized to retrieve these animals. Unauthorized people who found an oiled animal of any species were supposed to call a number and give directions to the animal, but were not allowed to not touch it or remove it under threat of heavy fines and jail.

Even authorized people were prohibited from capturing any bird still capable of flight. And “flight” was defined to include even the most pathetic fluttering. This Black-crowned Night-Heron that I photographed at the edge of Cat Island in Barataria Bay after the BP spill is not included in the official count of oiled birds.

Oiled Heron

Our boat spooked it and it fluttered a few feet into the water and then struggled to shore. Our boat captain told us that because none of us were authorized to collect oiled animals, he would lose his license if we did anything to try to save it. He also said that he was prohibited from calling in people who were authorized to retrieve oiled birds because it was still “flying.” I wish I were making this up.

The timing, during nesting season, made the situation even worse. In the weeks following the explosion, birders and other experts clearly observed that 50 to 80 percent of the 10,000 breeding birds on Raccoon Island were oiled. Yet not one of those birds is included in the official count of oiled wildlife. Thanks to another bizarre rule change, people who’d been permitted to take photos and videos of nesting birds on the island before the spill were shooed away, and even those people authorized to collect wildlife were prohibited from approaching the island, ostensibly to ensure nesting success of unoiled birds. Just the oiled adult birds on Raccoon Island would have doubled the final count of oiled birds, yet not one of them, nor any of their oiled eggs and chicks, nor a single oiled bird on other nesting colonies, is included in the official total.

I rejoined ABA in the aftermath of the BP spill because ABA sponsored and provided a forum for Drew Wheelan, the only birder consistently and steadily out in the field throughout the aftermath. Drew tirelessly and against a great many forces documented everything he saw about the disaster. I spent a few weeks down there in July and August, and saw for myself that everything Drew had written about was true. As far as I’m concerned, ABA proved itself a true conservation organization by using our strength—birding expertise—to document the effects of the spill on birds.

Drew Wheelan

Some people speculate that rehabilitating oiled birds is not worth the cost and effort, when that money and energy could be going to support projects with the potential to help far greater numbers of birds. Even though I strongly believe that rehabilitating oiled birds is worth it, I agree that the subject is debatable. But the timing of the debate always seems to come right on the heels of these disasters, and following the BP spill, that debate played right into BP’s hands. Even some normally conscientious conservationists criticized the effort of retrieving these birds, presumably not realizing why retrieving these birds was so very important.

Regardless of the value of wildlife rehab, under current rules, the only oiled wildlife included in official numbers are ones that have been retrieved, dead or alive. This matters. It’s these official numbers that are used to assess damages against responsible parties. Thanks to the changes in protocol, barely 7,000 birds are in the official total of oiled wildlife after the BP spill. Just 7,000, compared to the quarter million in the official total after the Exxon Valdez spill. The National Wildlife Federation has a webpage directly comparing the two spills, but they present only the official numbers with no mention whatsoever that the method of counting changed so dramatically between the two events.

This is why it’s crucial that we birders document EVERY oiled bird. eBird is the way to do this. It will take a lot of work for scientists to identify and take out double counted birds and tease out the meaning and validity of the numbers, but only with a robust body of data can we establish with any accuracy at all the magnitude of damage from this spill.

For updates on the Galveston Bay oil spill and what you can do to help, please see Houston Audubon’s website.

To sign a petition to encourage access for rehabbers and accurate reporting of oiled birds, go here.

 

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