ABC Report: Many Gulf Spill Cleanup Efforts Harming Birds

A report released July 19 by American Bird Conservancy shows how some of BP’s oil spill cleanup efforts are harming birds and their habitats rather than helping them, that cleanup vessels are inadequate and operating in the wrong locations, and that deployed boom has failed to protect some important bird colonies from oil.

The report, Gulf Oil Spill: Field Survey Report and Recommendations, provides a series of five key recommendations for birds – ranging from the use of boom to habitat restoration – related to efforts surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The report is based on a just-completed week-long field assessment by ABC staff, who observed oil impacts and cleaning operations from Louisiana through Mississippi to Dauphin Island, Ala. As part of the overview, ABC staff toured affected areas by boat with local and federal officials and charter boat captains. With Coast Guard officials, they also undertook an aerial over-flight of the spill area and points northwest of that location.

“Restoration needs to start as soon as major coastal oiling has been effectively addressed," said Mike Parr, ABC vice president and report author. "The Gulf doesn’t have the decades it took to resolve the legal wrangling that followed the Exxon Valdez spill. The hydrology of the Mississippi Delta and the surrounding area is already facing dire threats from climate change, erosion, and hurricanes. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes we made in Alaska 20 years ago,” he added.

The specific recommendations address:

  • The use of more effective boom to protect bird colonies. Numerous instances were observed where boom was in complete disarray, including being washed up on shore.
  • The employment of better fencing and other measures to protect sensitive beach nesting areas and to reduce disturbance to birds. Clean-up crews were clearly unaware in several instances of the negative impacts they were causing to birds and their habitat.
  • The deployment of adequately sized and equipped oil skimmers close to the coast with improved real-time oil reports to eliminate oil before it reaches the beaches and marshlands. ABC observed an instance of a substantial heavy oil slick about half a mile offshore while cleanup vessels were operating in very mildly oiled waters about one mile away – apparently unaware.
  • The creation of a staging and recovery area for heavily oiled birds close to the coast. With the moving of the existing facility to a location about 70 miles away, some sort of near-shore facility is needed.
  • The restoration of eroded island habitat for nesting birds. Breton Island, for example, is a fraction of its original size, is an important bird habitat and is in desperate need of rebuilding.

“Clearly, this is an unprecedented spill that has brought massive, well-intentioned efforts to the area – over 3,000 boats and 30,000 people are involved. Our recommendations, while not comprehensive, reflect first-hand observations and are intended to make those efforts rapidly more effective, especially in light of the fact that fall bird migration is just around the corner,” Parr added.

During their survey, ABC staff observed oiled birds at several locations. The report presents a list of the observed oiled bird species.

“Without question, I think the unqualified bright spot of the cleanup effort was the bird cleaning center in Fort Jackson. It was gratifying to see that part of the cleanup is being carried out very effectively. The staff of the International Bird Rescue Research Center seemed totally committed, but most importantly, birds are being saved. During one of our boat surveys with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, our vessel captured a clearly sick and oiled juvenile Roseate Spoonbill, and had it sent to the Center for treatment. Two days later, they brought out the bird for us to see and it looked clean and alert – much improved from the feeble state that allowed it to be simply picked up by hand off an oil boom 48 hours earlier,” Parr said.

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The Coast Guard released several birds recently that were rescued and rehabilitated. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey is asking that people who see banded birds and oiled wildlife to report these sightings by calling 866.557.1401 or visiting the National Bird Banding Lab.

Birds from the BP oil spill are banded with metal federal leg bands with a unique ID number. In addition, brown pelicans also receive a large color leg band. Three colors of leg bands are being used:

  • Orange bands with no identification numbers or letters.
  • Red bands with identifying numbers and letters.
  • Pink bands with identifying numbers and letters.

Reporting the band number and the bird’s location will help biologists understand the movements and survival of the birds after their release.

Scientific information being collected from this oil spill will expand the scope of knowledge that bird researchers and other scientists will have in the future to help ensure the health of migratory birds. Among other information, scientists will learn the extent to which released birds return to their original habitat.

Birds are released only after wildlife specialists determine they are sufficiently prepared and exhibit natural behavior including waterproofing, self-feeding, normal blood values, and are free of injuries or disease. They are released in appropriate habitats where human disturbance is minimal. While the birds are often released in the Gulf area, they are released as far as possible from areas affected by the BP oil spill. Choosing release sites is complicated; biologists want to make sure that birds are released into the same populations from which they came, but with as little risk of getting re-exposed to oil as possible.

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