On the Gulf Coast Oil Spill and Its Impacts On Wildlife

This May Be the Best National Disscusion I Have Seen On the Impacts of the Gulf Oil Spill On Wildlife.
May 24, 2010
As more oil reaches shore in the Gulf of Mexico, more birds, turtles and other coastal animals are being coated and killed by it. While in Plaquemines Parish recently, Melissa Block spoke to bird conservationist Melanie Driscoll of the Audubon Society’s Louisiana program about what’s happening, and what to expect.
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Late last week, I was down along the Louisiana coast. I went out on a boat ride through the oil slick, which is now washing up onto beaches and into fragile marshes. The effects are growing more and more visible.

Over the weekend, pictures of dead seabirds covered in oil, oiled brown pelicans still alive and pelican eggs in the nest, brown with oil when they should be white. Out alongside a road in Venice, Louisiana, looking out over trees filled with nesting great egrets and roseate spoonbills, I spoke with Melanie Driscoll. She’s the director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society’s Louisiana program. She’s worried about what’s she’s seeing and the effects of the spill we won’t see.

Ms. MELANIE DRISCOLL (Director of Bird Conservation, National Audubon Society): They’ve already found some birds dying on beaches, dying on shores, but all those birds won’t be found. Some will die out in the gulf. Some will, you know, may die in places that are inaccessible. That kik-kik-kik sound that you just heard is a clapper rail, and clapper rails are a marsh-nesting bird that they weave in and out of the marsh grass.

The term ‘thin as a rail’ comes from rails wandering between blades of grass without disturbing them. Those clapper rails, if they die in the marsh, they’ll never be found. They are too small and they’ll be too hidden.

BLOCK: Can you see that rail? I know they like to hide.

Ms. DRISCOLL: They like to hide. Although one was out in a – I was out in habitat yesterday and one stood in the middle of a little trail, calling and calling and calling. It was the bravest clapper rail I’ve ever seen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Or the dumbest?

Ms. DRISCOLL: Or the dumbest. It was very, very content to sit out and squawk, but it was great.

BLOCK: He’s in there somewhere.

Ms. DRISCOLL: Kik-kik-kik-kik. Yeah, they’re great.

BLOCK: If you think about the brown pelicans, are they a signpost, I mean, a signal of other – of what’s to come for other bird populations?

Ms. DRISCOLL: They are. They’re really one of the canaries in the coalmine. They’re out there at ground zero for where the oil is first hitting. Even if we protect their islands with booms, they feed out in those gulf coastal waters where most of the oil is right now.

One of the things that really strikes me being on the beaches is watching the birds with no care in the world, just going through their normal behaviors -courting, chasing each other, running in and out of the waves, probing in the sand, eating marine life.

They get no foreshadowing, no forewarning. They don’t see this coming. They can’t go to a grocery store and buy safe water. We have the ability to modify our behavior to reduce our threat level, and they don’t. They don’t even know there is a threat, so it’s very poignant watching these birds engaging in these incredibly hopeful activities – nesting, you know, going out to feed, bringing fish back to babies, and knowing that they have no idea what they’re bringing back to their nests.

BLOCK: What is your long-term worst-case scenario? What are you most concerned about right now?

Ms. DRISCOLL: Long term, we’re worried about a couple of things. One is the immediate direct impacts on birds – birds getting oil on feathers and dying because they lose the ability to maintain their body temperatures or ingesting oil and dying from toxicity, having an initial drop in populations because of the direct impacts.

Worst-case scenario would be that the oil in the water column causes food chain collapses and that there is no food to support the remaining bird populations that aren’t directly impacted.

BLOCK: And any sense of how likely, I mean how would you know what the likelihood is that that would happen?

Ms. DRISCOLL: The likelihood is hard to talk about. It depends on many factors that are unknown right now – how soon that oil is capped, how much of the oil is actually in the water column, which we don’t have good measurements of, and the effects of other things like the dispersants used and the protection activities to keep oil out of the marshes, how much that impacts the birds and the other organisms.

In addition, there will be an accounting of this that will not be as immediate as it was for some other oil spills. I think some early estimates of the damage won’t come for a year. When we’ve got counts this year of brown pelican nests on North Breton Island where you were, when they fly back and they count those brown pelican nests and add up the total for Louisiana, I expect that total will be a lot lower next year. That will be our first real indication of mortality of that species.

Fisheries, when they can reopen fisheries, they’ll have to compare a fisheries catch in a few years to the fisheries catch last year. That accounting will be delayed. It’s going to be a long time until we have any real sense of the impact.

BLOCK: That’s Melanie Driscoll with the Audubon Society’s Gulf Coast initiative. We spoke in Venice, Louisiana.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You’re listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.


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