Lessons from an Oil Spill
I received an email today from Jessica Green over at Audubon regarding Audubon’s week long initiative, “Oil & Birds Don’t Mix”. This seven days of action includes a plea to everyone to take a small step on Tuesday, today, to walk to work, carpool, or take public transportation. This one small step on the part of millions of people may help to demonstrate the difference that we can make towards oil dependency as a nation and, even as a world force.
Last week, Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway, along with several others from the wildlife community, spoke during a Congressional briefing on the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I’ll admit that I am like most people – there are so many things swirling around on the news that it is easy to forget the past, regardless of how important it might be to remember.
With that being said, I learned something from reading the transcript of Melanie’s presentation that I had not been in touch with before, That is, there is a multiplying effect that happens after large scale disasters such as Horizon.
The Multiplying Effect
The concept is simple and, in actuality, sort of obvious. It’s not possible to know the exact effect for many years after the spill. Her example followed the Pigeon Guillemot in Alaska. After the Exxon Valdez spill, 10 to 15 percent of the birds from the spill area perished due to the acute oiling. The decline, though, had a continuing effect over many years based on several possible reasons including:
Adult birds feeding in the exposed area, which was still toxic.
Some of their prey had accumulated oil compounds. For ten years afterwards, spill area birds showed biochemical markers for oil exposure
A decline in food supply with the crash in herring populations.
They were at an increased risk for predation as mink and river otters turned to these birds for food after the decline in shellfish populations.
Back to the Gulf of Mexico
The Brown Pelican does, as Melanie puts it, stand as the “Poster Bird” for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A total of 826 were collected, either deceased or alive but in peril, during the disaster. However, two years is not a long enough period of time to determine the “multiplier”.
There are some things that are known:
- There has been an accelerated loss of mangroves in which pelicans and other birds breed
- The mangrove declines means greater erosion and loss of marsh habitat where many birds feed
- There is a higher mortality rate among offspring of the birds most affected by the spill
- There is a higher incidence of low birth weights, cancers, and other failures of living
- Some species such as Pelicans are long-lived and do not begin to breed until their third or fourth breeding season. Therefore, it could be up to two more years until we see the effect on their breeding lives.
Melanie concluded her presentation with a list of working solutions that included doing more to connect the Mississippi River to marshes and beaches through large scale sediment diversions, acting more quickly to help restore the Coastal ecosystem, and funding long-term monitoring of the deepwater and nearshore environments.
Time Marches On
As time goes by, there will continually be other disasters, other worries that overshadow even great natural disasters such as Deepwater Horizon. I, for one, am grateful that there are birding organizations such as Audubon who continue to express concern and lobby on the behalf of nature to not just protect, but to improve our Earth, if that is possible.