Galveston Oil Spill Animal Body Count Continues

As we've unfortunately learned many times before, a bunch of oil dumped into bodies of water doesn't tend to work out well for the birds and other animals that live in the area.

We learned it with Exxon Valdez and it hit much closer to home with the British Petroleum oil spill in 2010. Now the chickens have really come home to roost. Hundreds of oiled birds -- some dead and some likely to die -- have been spotted in the past few days. There were dire predictions after a collision in the Houston Ship Channel on March 22 spilled up to 168,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into Texas waters, and now the predictions are coming true. More than 300 oiled birds have been found, most of them dead, since the spill, according to the Texas Tribune, and it's expected there are more oiled birds out there.

The spill happened right as migration season was beginning, guaranteeing a wide variety of birds would be exposed to the oil, in addition to the year-round birds who hang around the Texas shores. In the days since the spill, oiled birds have been found in environmentally sensitive areas including the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (an area where a variety of species of birds spends time), Mustand Island, South Padre National Seashore (where the Kemp's ridley turtles come to lay their eggs) and Matagorda Island. Most of the oil washed out toward the Gulf instead of moving inland, but this has been devastating for the shore birds.

When the oil started coming into shore, a lot of shore birds began getting into it. A lot of these birds make their living in that exact environment, David Newstead, an environmental scientist with the Corpus Christi-based nonprofit Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, said. Once a bird gets oil on it, the oil doesn't come off. The only way to get it off is preening and in the process of doing that they ingest oil. The government is working on cleaning up the beaches, but in many areas along the shore the damage has already been done, he said. The organization conducted a survey of about 40 kilometers of the Texas coast. Based on what the percentage of birds that were found with oil, hundreds of shore birds could be affected, he said.

All kinds of birds, including ducks, herrings, herons, brown and white pelicans, sanderlings, loons, willets, black-bellied plover and the piping plover (which is protected by the Endangered Species Act) have been affected by the spill, according to the Texas Tribune.

The sanderling, the ruddy turnstone, the black-winged plover, the willet are all birds that spend a lot of time on the beach, Newstead said. Most of the birds are Arctic breeding birds who are normally eating as much as they can to prepare to migrate to their northern nesting grounds in a few weeks, he said. The oiled birds won't be doing this and the odds are good they'll die before they leave for migration or they won't put on enough weight to be able to survive the journey, he said.

Some of the birds are part of larger populations that are represented across the country, but some species are more dependent on the area and could be hit hard, Newstead said. "This could be really bad considering we're here and the Texas coast is one of the critical sites on the Central Flyway," Newstead said. More than half the entire population of the piping plover, a species listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List, is supported by the Texas Gulf Coast. They've already found some oiled birds while conducting surveys, he said.

To make matters worse, dead dolphins have been found, according to a release issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday. Most of the animals were not visibly oiled but necropsies are still underway to determine what killed them. Some oiled turtles have been picked up as well, though the turtles were still alive. Another concern will be for the Kemp's ridley turtle since the spill could put oil right in the middle of their nesting grounds, Newstead says.

In short, oil spills are awful and it looks like we're having that point brutally illustrated. Because of the type of oil spilled -- a thick heavy fuel oil that can drift to the bottom of the bays and stay there for years -- it's possible this is only the beginning. With more than 300 birds reported dead, more than 20 dolphins (29 so far, including one in Harris County, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle.

"We've been here working on all these little threats to the bird population, just chipping away at them, and then all the sudden something like this happens, and it could wipe them out," Newstead said. ""We'll continue to do surveys, but it's going to be up to the government agencies to sort out the numbers of what's been impacted and then there will probably be a fight about them in court. But regardless of what any company could pay, the damage has already been done."

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