Imperiled Bird Colony Questions Persist on Day 98 of the Gulf Oil Disaster
I continue to be baffled by the decisions being made by the response effort as it concerns wildlife. A most distressing situation that illustrates just how ineffective and poorly managed the response has been is that of the multi-species nesting colony on Raccoon Island. Known to many locals as Last Island, this 5 km. long island in the Isles Deniers chain in Terrebonne Bay contains one of the largest populations of nesting seabirds in the state of Louisiana, including thousands of Brown Pelicans, Louisiana's State Bird. One would assume that being such an important resource for local wildlife that it would be indentified as en extreme priority for protection and monitoring.
One of the only ways that the response effort has been protecting important islands is through the placement of a combination of deflective and sorbent boom to lessen the effects of the oil coming ashore from the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Breton Island, another seabird colony in Breton sound on the eastern side of the Mississippi River delta is heavily armored with a combination of this booming material that includes several rings of protection around the entire island, with the outer ring being a very heavy duty type which is meant for more open water application. There are many types of boom, and there has been a shortage and a difficulty in getting as much boom as needed in certain instances. That being a fact, many of these outer island areas have been protected with inferior boom that is designed for inner harbor applications, and is rendered completely ineffective by any type of wave action. On day 92 work finally began to place more sturdy deflective boom around Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay, 3 months late. Many birds have already died or have been rescued due to the effects of the oil on that island, and not until this late date has the spill response effort begun to armor it in the most effective way possible.
Raccoon Island, one of the most densely populated islands with birds in the entire state was left with one layer of deflective inner harbor type boom, which was completely useless against the waves and the wind from a storm in early July. As of last Friday, day 94, this boom was still piled high up on the beach, having been washed ashore with the same oil that drenched a large number of birds, an event that was brought to light by Cornell University biologists studying the colony. Had Tropical Storm Bonnie been stronger and hit Louisiana’s coast, Raccoon Island would have been utterly defenseless against the likely incursion of crude that would have been brought in with the waves as it lacked any boom at all. It makes no sense that this island was not identified as a higher priority, and now we are seeing massive effects which have been documented by New Orleans photographer Jerry Moran on his website.
What’s more is that
wildlife officials from the state and federal agencies continue to stand by their
protocol, which states, "If the percentage of the colony oiled exceeds 50%, a team of at least three highly
qualified biologists (ornithologists, species specific managers, etc.) from LDWF and USFWS will collaborate and develop a unified decision and protocol to remove the birds.". These very same agencies routinely penetrate this island to band individual birds during the breeding season, and these same agencies were routinely making rescues on these colonies even after they published this protocol. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but given the evidence, it seems that the agencies are consciously choosing not to capture and rehabilitate certain species, unless a serendipitous encounter with an oiled bird gives them no choice. Here is a link to a document showing non-biologist crews on Raccoon Island. Were they doing harm? Couldn't someone do this and rescue a few birds? On many islands different species are segregated, and it is very possible to approach certain groups of birds without coming into contact with, or jeopardizing other birds.
I absolutely believe that this protocol makes sense on
certain islands, and that it would do more harm to attempt to rescue individual
birds, as is the case on Cat Island, also in Barataria Bay. The proximity to shore and location of
nests in Mangrove trees creates a situation that any incursion would likely
cause young birds to fledge prematurely.
In fact this was witnessed on Wednesday, July 21, when two clean up crew
boats were removing saturated boom that had become lodged in the Black Mangrove
trees, which comprise the island colony.
A clean up worker hurriedly strips of his Tyvek suit, as the fleet of clean up crews inside the boom at Cat Island flee the scene as soon as we arrived.
As we approached, these boats quickly withdrew raising suspicions with
our boat that they were up to something questionable. We initially thought that they were perhaps picking up dead
birds from the colony, but then we saw two young Pelicans, weeks away from when
they should have left the nest, lying in the oil soaked mud exactly where the
boats had been working.
A Brown Pelican, far too young to be out of the nest waits for the oily tide.
Unable to fly or repel water without its plumage grown in, this Pelican will likely succumb to hypothermia. Another casualty to BP's reckless clean up contractors.
This type of activity illustrates the lack of communication between wildlife officials and clean up operations. It also underscores the absolute need for third party environmental oversight for all potentially impactful activities performed by the response effort.
Back to rescuing birds in colonies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and
the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries routinely made rescues on
these islands in Barataria Bay, and in fact allowed Jeff Corwin to make a
celebrity rescue in mid-June here.
It wasn’t until large numbers of Royal Terns became oiled that they
started to stick by this protocol steadfastly. These birds were right on the edge of the island, and I have
witnessed encroachments into these very islands that elicited no response from
other colony members. They absolutely
could have and should have been rescued, but instead were left to die a slow
and awful death.
This Royal Tern was rescued, after we discovered it and alerted officials. It was so weak, and from its ordeal that I seriously doubt that it survived.
If there are reasons, such as survivability of the species to the effects of the oil, or percent of the population that has been affected that is governing these decisions, the associated agencies have the responsibility to engage them, and illuminate a public that deserves to know. Relying on a broad-spectrum protocol that serves to manage myriad situations with a single and wide brush undermines the entire reason that we hire experts to head our agencies and manage dire situations like the one we have in the Gulf of Mexico. Cat Island is not Queen Bess Island, which is not Raccoon Island. The contracted groups that are dealing with the washing and rehabilitation of these birds are more than prepared to deal with these birds and would love to at least try and save a few Royal Terns, even if it’s now too late.
journal, July 22, 2010, Day 93
From my journal, July 22, 2010, Day 93
"Yesterday I saw huge tracts of marshland in Barataria Bay with the thickest oil I have seen yet, and no clean up effort underway. We also saw a ribbon of fresh oil flowing into the marshlands, ten miles inside the bay. The wide swath of oil was over a mile long and so noxious that my throat still burns from the fumes. A small boat was present, but no skimmers were working to contain the oil, though we had passed many such boats, anchored in the bay before we found this oil. It is quite frankly, absolutely infuriating to hear the claims by BP that they are working to clean the Gulf. The efforts here are little more than a disorganized circus, and the fact that many birds are experiencing a respite from direct heavy oiling owes itself to nothing more than the weather, and the toxic dispersants having kept the Louisiana Crude from the shores.
While our tour of the breeding colonies yesterday offered much hope as many of the Brown Pelicans, and Heronids seem to be fledging birds without oil. There was also much sadness as the Royal tern colony on Queen Bess Island has almost completely perished. Where there were over a hundred chicks gathered along the oily rocks on the western shore of the island, I only counted two live chicks, and saw a few lumps of feathers."