Gulf Spill Cleanup Efforts Harming, Not Helping, Birds

WASHINGTON, DC, July 20, 2010 (ENS) – Some of the BP oil spill cleanup efforts are hurting birds and their habitats rather than helping them, according to a new report by American Bird Conservancy.

“The cleanup operation is the second disaster,” said the report’s author ABC Vice President Mike Parr, now back in Washington after a week-long field assessment with other staffers from the nonprofit organization.

The birders observed the impacts of the spilled oil and cleaning operations on birds from Louisiana through Mississippi to Dauphin Island, Alabama. They toured affected areas by boat with local and federal officials and charter boat captains. With Coast Guard officials, they went on an aerial overflight of the spill area and points northwest.

Parr said he concluded that, “Skimmers are ineffective and operating in the wrong locations, boom is ineffective – there needs to be a major refocusing of effort.”

One day the ABC team saw a substantial heavy oil slick about half a mile offshore while cleanup vessels were operating in mildly oiled waters about one mile away, he said, apparently unaware of the oily mess close by.

Cleanup crews are disturbing beach roosting and nesting birds, especially in least tern colonies, and destroying their habitat, the ABC observers found.

Airboat disturbs brown pelicans and terns (Photo by Robert Johns courtesy ABC)

While sensitive least terns were trying to nest and feed their young on their traditional nesting beaches, Parr told ENS he saw cleanup vehicles driving through posted nesting areas and over boom, people walking up and down beaches with white bags “trying to find something to put in them,” and dune buggies driven through nesting areas, “adding injury to injury.”

The ABC team observed the worst abuses on beaches between Gulfport and Biloxi Mississippi, he said.

“This is an unprecedented spill that has brought massive, well-intentioned efforts to the area – over 3,000 boats and 30,000 people are involved,” said Parr.

At the very least, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists should accompany cleanup crews to tell them where not to clean,” Parr advised. Cleanup crews were clearly unaware in several instances of the negative impacts they were causing to birds and their habitat, he said.

Noisy air boats are another source of bird disturbance. These boats operate alongside some cleanup crews using unmuffled airplane propellers as a power source, and their operations were causing large numbers of birds to be repeatedly flushed from roosting sites. The air boats also frequently ran over the boom, and in some places the boom appeared to be sagging in the water at these locations.

In its report, the American Bird Conservancy recommends:

  • The use of more effective boom to protect bird colonies. Numerous instances were observed where boom was in complete disarray, including being washed up on shore.
  • The employment of better fencing and other measures to protect sensitive beach nesting areas and to reduce disturbance to birds.
  • The deployment of adequately sized and equipped oil skimmers close to the coast with improved real-time oil reports to eliminate oil before it reaches the beaches and marshlands.
  • The creation of a staging and recovery area for heavily oiled birds close to the coast. With the moving of the existing facility to a location about 70 miles away, some sort of near-shore facility is needed, ABC says.
  • The restoration of eroded island habitat for nesting birds. Now a fraction of its original size, Breton Island is an important bird habitat and is in need of rebuilding.

Parr said, “Our recommendations, while not comprehensive, reflect first-hand observations and are intended to make those efforts rapidly more effective, especially in light of the fact that fall bird migration is just around the corner.”

The ABC team did find hopeful signs amidst the destruction. “Without question, I think the unqualified bright spot of the cleanup effort was the bird cleaning center in Fort Jackson,” Parr said. “It was gratifying to see that part of the cleanup is being carried out very effectively.”

The staff of the International Bird Rescue Research Center seemed totally committed and birds are being saved.

“During one of our boat surveys with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, our vessel captured a clearly sick and oiled juvenile roseate spoonbill, and had it sent to the Center for treatment,” Parr said. “Two days later, they brought out the bird for us to see and it looked clean and alert – much improved from the feeble state that allowed it to be simply picked up by hand off an oil boom 48 hours earlier.”

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