Here’s a horror story involving birds that even Alfred Hitchcock never could have dreamed up. If you followed BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe beginning some four years ago, then I’m sure you remember the heart-wrenching photographs of wildlife-rescue workers plucking oiled birds off our Gulf Coast beaches. While these photos sparked national outrage over BP’s carelessness that caused a whopping 5 million barrels of crude oil to spill off the Louisiana coast, the oil giant would like you to believe that these were isolated incidents, and that the worst of the spill is behind us.
Thank goodness that dedicated scientists have stayed on the case, and have shown their determination to document the real impact of the spill on the Gulf ecology — a process that takes years to get right. This weekend, Audubon magazine published the work of three experienced researchers who’ve been seeking to put a number on just how many birds perished due to the BP spill. They note that the oiled birds reported on beaches were just a fraction of those who would have perished offshore, and a true counting would have to include the ongoing environmental impacts and not just the birds who died in the three months after the catastrophe.
As the article notes:
Despite these being two very different ways to estimate bird mortality, the models agreed very closely with the possible range of bird deaths: between 600,000 and 800,000 over the 95 days of the “acute phase” of the spill. Another way to think about that: 8,000 coastal birds died every day during the acute phase.
While the numbers are sobering on their own, drilling down to individual bird species reveal population-level impacts on their numbers. According to the paper, 36 percent of the entire Laughing Gull population in the northern Gulf of Mexico died within that 95-day period. Fifteen percent of Royal Terns perished, as did 12 percent of Brown Pelicans. On Queen Bess Island, Driscoll saw an entire colony of Royal Tern chicks oiled; they all subsequently died due to oil exposure.
The suffering that Driscoll observed during the actual spill foreshadowed this devastating loss of bird life, and she says she has feared that the toll could exceed a million birds. In the paper by Haney et al., says Driscoll, the researchers went to great lengths to explain how they used data from this and other spills to make their calculations. The authors described sources for overcounting and undercounting. For example, if oiled birds tend to fly toward shore, the researchers may have overestimated the number of birds that died. But sources of undercounting are far more prevalent: During the spill, searchers only collected whole carcasses, and they did not search breeding colonies until months after the initial spill. Further, the counts missed the carcasses that were either burned or skimmed away when rescue workers removed oil from the water’s surface. The researchers also chose to not count live oiled birds and they deliberately excluded entire classes of birds–marsh-dwellers such as gallinules, rails, bitterns, and some herons and egrets. More than 2,000 miles of marsh were affected by the spill, representing a large number of bird deaths which are not accounted for in the analysis.
The mortality from acute oil exposure is only a fraction of the damage that Deepwater Horizon wreaked upon the Gulf. Four years after the disaster, some 200 miles of Louisiana beach is still contaminated with oil. Studies on shrimp and dolphins have shown long-term health issues with animals exposed to oil and dispersant during the Deepwater Horizon–lowered reproductive success, chronic health problems, and starvation due to loss of food sources.
The numbers are staggering. The authors raises a point that we’ve made many times on this blog, that “[t]he most distressing aspect of this entire situation, says Driscoll, is that, four years later, BP is putting more energy into stonewalling than restoring the Gulf.” That’s exactly right, and people also need to be aware that in past spills — such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez tragedy in Alaska — the worst environmental effects were not felt right away, but in ensuing years as oil and related toxins worked their way into the food chain and affected the reproductive process.
Just as 5 million barrels of crude oil is a large number that is almost impossible for the average person to fathom, 1 million dead birds is very hard to picture, but it does give one a sense of the scope of the tragedy that occurred here. And consider this: These are essentially 1 million canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the human health effects that occurred along the Gulf Coast; many clean-up workers and others who came in close proximety are not only suffering now, but they, too, are certain to experience higher rates of premature death. It really makes me wonder why Big Oil is forging ahead so quickly with high-risk drilling with little evidence that safety has improved — when there’s this much to lose.
Read the Audubon magazine piece on how BP’s oil spill is killing more than 1 million birds: http://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/conservation/more-one-million-birds-died-during-deepwater-horizon-disaster
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