Coast Guard crews and wildlife advocates have recovered or spotted hundreds of shorebirds covered in oil in the aftermath of a collision late last month between two ships in Galveston Bay that resulted in a spill of up to 168,000 gallons of fuel oil. Many are dead, those still alive have little hope for survival, and officials say they expect to find more.
“When a bird has oil coating its eyes and bill, it’s not capable of getting rid of it. Watching this is like watching them die in slow motion,” said David Newstead, a research scientist at the Corpus Christi-based nonprofit Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program.
While the Houston Ship Channel is open and fishermen have mostly resumed activities in the bay, officials say they are at least several weeks away from fully containing the fuel oil, and its devastating effects on shorebirds are becoming increasingly apparent. The effects of the spill, Newstead said, are particularly troubling in the ecologically sensitive area in which the birds have already been in peril from human activity.
Newstead and Coast Guard officials said birds affected by the spill include ducks, herrings, herons, brown and white pelicans, sanderlings, loons, willets, black-bellied plover and the piping plover, which is classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
As of Thursday, the Coast Guard said it had recovered 329 oiled birds from Galveston Bay to North Padre Island. Nearly all of them were dead. But Newstead said he has surveyed Mustang Island, about 200 miles southwest of the initial spill site, and observed at least 500 more birds with some traces of oil. The soiled birds came into contact with the contaminated water as it washed ashore.
Even though they’re still flying around for now, Newstead said, they’ll end up ingesting the oil by preening — grooming themselves with their beaks.
Birds that need to migrate soon are at a particular risk, he added. For instance, sanderlings — small, plump grey birds — spend winter months on sandy beaches but breed only in the Arctic Circle. To prepare for their migration back, they must put on a tremendous amount of weight. But oiled sanderlings, instead of feeding and gaining weight to prepare for the flight, will focus on preening.
“The consequence is that they’ll depart, basically without gas, and crash and burn on the way,” Newstead said.
Since the March 22 collision in the Houston Ship Channel damaged an oil barge, the U.S. Coast Guard, in coordination with state wildlife officials, has conducted a massive cleanup effort on the Texas Gulf Coast.
The focus now is cleaning the most affected areas, including reefs and lagoons on the northeast end of Galveston Island and Pelican Island, Coast Guard spokesman Andy Kendrick said. Some areas are moving on to “monitor and maintain mode,” which means the cleanup portion is done but requires routine maintenance checks. The goal is to mend the affected areas until they return to pre-spill conditions.
“The most optimal thing would’ve been [the spill] never happening,” said Kendrick, who works at the Texas City command post. “But I’ve seen a number of oil spills from Port Arthur to San Francisco, and by far this has been one of the best responses.”
Still, the damage to wildlife is done and will be difficult to fully assess, Coast Guard officials said. There are likely hundreds more birds that have not been identified that have been at least partially covered in oil and will not be recovered, they said.
“Nine times out of 10, it’s not worth capturing a bird,” said Nancy Brown, a Coast Guard spokeswoman at the Port O’Connor command post. Sometimes handling a bird will cause it too much stress and inflict even more injury, she said.
And the oil spill is only one challenge with which the birds must contend, Newstead said. Real estate expansion, climate changes and other human interferences have caused habitat loss, too.
“A lot of these shorebird species are not doing well to begin with, and we keep chipping away at their populations,” he said. “At some point, they won’t be able to recover from repeat insult.”