Galveston Bay Oil Spill: What We Birders Can Do
By Laura Erickson, on
March 26, 2014
The March 22 spill of 168,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker fuel into Galveston
Bay can be expected to take a huge toll on migrating, nesting, and
still-wintering birds. If you want to donate money to help, Houston Audubon
seems to be the go-to organization right now. But whether or not you can make a
financial contribution, if you spend time on the Texas coast this spring, you
can make a vitally important difference in what happens next, by submitting the
sightings of every oiled bird you see into eBird. Enter the species, numbers,
time, and place as always, and for each bird click "Add Details," then click
"Oiled Birds." Provide photos whenever possible.
Even though eBird can be the perfect repository for this wealth of data, how can
entering bird sightings actually help this horrible situation?
After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, volunteers and professionals descended
upon Alaska in huge numbers. Some volunteers may have gotten in the way here and
there, but with all those eyes and cameras bearing witness to the devastation,
there was no way that Exxon could hide the environmental damage and the toll on
wildlife. The final tally for oiled birds was between 100,000 and 250,000 oiled
seabirds and at least 247 Bald Eagles. Thanks to the huge public outcry, the
issue of single-hulled tankers was kept alive, and a great deal of pressure was
put on Congress to enact legislation to strengthen protections for our vital
After the BP spill in 2010, I was disillusioned to see how dramatically things
had changed. Only a handful of volunteers and very few professionals went to the
Gulf. Marge Gibson, past president of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation
Council and the woman who led the team recovering oiled Bald Eagles after the
Exxon Valdez spill, was turned away from helping--literally prohibited from
providing her valuable expertise--as were countless other specialists experienced
in retrieving oiled pelicans and other birds along the Florida and California
coasts. BP, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation organizations, and
the media gave out phone numbers for people to call if they wanted to help, and
those of us who called were told we'd be notified if our services were
necessary, but I know of no one who was ever called back. Qualified people with
years of expertise in helping animals after oil spills waited for phone calls or
email that never came. Marge Gibson waited for months with her bags packed.
What changed between the Exxon and BP spills was that the companies learned from
what they considered Exxon's P.R. mistakes. They learned that preventing
access to the area and trying to minimize photographic evidence was the way to
go. If the public doesn't see it, it does not exist. Exxon has been
judged severely for the Valdez accident, but in fact, after the spill they did
their honest best, enlisting top scientists worldwide that were not just
suits--they wore survival gear because they were physically on site--in ships and
on the ground. I was there. I worked with them.
That spill was an open book not only for the public, but for the scientists that
worked on it. B.P. decided that was not good because scientists document
their work and put the data and their findings in the literature where it is
available forever. The scientists who were allowed to produce studies in the
aftermath of the BP spill had to sign away their rights to publish any of them
for at least 5 years.
Yes, Exxon made mistakes. But it wasn't Exxon who declared that oil companies
could use single hulls again. Exxon allowed every aspect of the spill and the
cleanup to be an open book. We could have learned how to reduce the potential
for future spills, but all that seems to have been learned is how to do more
effective cover-ups to minimize liability as much as humanly possible.
From the standpoint of wildlife conservation, the specific critical change
between the 1989 Exxon spill and the 2010 BP spill is in the protocol for
counting oiled animals--the only means of assessing damage to wildlife. After the
Exxon spill, EVERY oiled animal that was seen was counted. Even though a quarter
million oiled birds were documented, this number is considered by most
authorities to be a gross underestimate, considering the huge area involved and
how many birds, tiny and large, washed away undetected in the vast ocean.
With the BP spill, the new policy was to count only those oiled birds that were
physically collected--picked up dead or alive. Minimizing the toll further, only
a handful of people were authorized to retrieve these animals. Unauthorized
people who found an oiled animal of any species were supposed to call a number
and give directions to the animal, but were not allowed to not touch it or
remove it under threat of heavy fines and jail.
Even authorized people were prohibited from capturing any bird still capable of
flight. And "flight" was defined to include even the most pathetic fluttering.
This Black-crowned Night-Heron that I photographed at the edge of Cat Island in
Barataria Bay after the BP spill is not included in the official count of oiled
Our boat spooked it and it fluttered a few feet into the water and then
struggled to shore. Our boat captain told us that because none of us were
authorized to collect oiled animals, he would lose his license if we did
anything to try to save it. He also said that he was prohibited from calling in
people who were authorized to retrieve oiled birds because it was still
"flying." I wish I were making this up.
The timing, during nesting season, made the situation even worse. In the weeks
following the explosion, birders and other experts clearly observed that 50 to
80 percent of the 10,000 breeding birds on Raccoon Island were oiled. Yet not
one of those birds is included in the official count of oiled wildlife. Thanks
to another bizarre rule change, people who'd been permitted to take photos and
videos of nesting birds on the island before the spill were shooed away, and
even those people authorized to collect wildlife were prohibited from
approaching the island, ostensibly to ensure nesting success of unoiled birds.
Just the oiled adult birds on Raccoon Island would have doubled the final count
of oiled birds, yet not one of them, nor any of their oiled eggs and chicks, nor
a single oiled bird on other nesting colonies, is included in the official
I rejoined ABA in the aftermath of the BP spill because ABA sponsored and
provided a forum for Drew Wheelan, the only birder consistently and steadily out
in the field throughout the aftermath. Drew tirelessly and against a great many
forces documented everything he saw about the disaster. I spent a few weeks down
there in July and August, and saw for myself that everything Drew had written
about was true. As far as I'm concerned, ABA proved itself a true conservation
organization by using our strength--birding expertise--to document the effects of
the spill on birds.
Some people speculate that rehabilitating oiled birds is not worth the cost
and effort, when that money and energy could be going to support projects with
the potential to help far greater numbers of birds. Even though I strongly
believe that rehabilitating oiled birds is worth it, I agree that the subject is
debatable. But the timing of the debate always seems to come right on the heels
of these disasters, and following the BP spill, that debate played right into
BP's hands. Even some normally conscientious conservationists criticized the
effort of retrieving these birds, presumably not realizing why retrieving these
birds was so very important.
Regardless of the value of wildlife rehab, under current rules, the only oiled
wildlife included in official numbers are ones that have been retrieved, dead or
alive. This matters. It's these official numbers that are used to assess damages
against responsible parties. Thanks to the changes in protocol, barely 7,000
birds are in the official total of oiled wildlife after the BP spill. Just
7,000, compared to the quarter million in the official total after the Exxon
Valdez spill. The National Wildlife Federation has a webpage
directly comparing the two spills, but they present only the official
numbers with no mention whatsoever that the method of counting changed so
dramatically between the two events.
This is why it's crucial that we birders document EVERY oiled bird. eBird is the
way to do this. It will take a lot of work for scientists to identify and take
out double counted birds and tease out the meaning and validity of the numbers,
but only with a robust body of data can we establish with any accuracy at all
the magnitude of damage from this spill.
For updates on the Galveston Bay oil spill and what you can do to help, please
see Houston Audubon's website.
To sign a petition to encourage access for rehabbers and accurate reporting of
oiled birds, go