Effects of Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill Still Visible One Year Later

Seaside sparrow. Photo by Gerry Ellis

Oil oozing out of the wrack line in the marsh in Bay Jimmy, a choking stench of asphalt wafting out of the marsh. Tar balls littering the beach on East Grand Terre Island. A tiny fiddler crab, black with oil, scuttling through the black goo oozing up through the marsh sediment. A smaller-still hermit crab, shell gleaming white, picking its careful way over oiled mud. A Seaside Sparrow, singing to protect its small, dense, marshy territory. A Magnificent Frigatebird, body broken and oiled, eyes frightened and wary, cowering in a plastic cage on a boat, headed for the wildlife rehabilitation center.
Wait, what day is this? What day, what month, what year? Isn’t this nightmare over, this nightmare that began on a similar day in April in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana’s coastline, nearly 12 months ago? When I got on a boat this morning, I did not realize how much the boat trip into Bay Jimmy would transport me back in time one year.
Again, Red Knots and Sanderlings, Willets and Dunlin, are feeding at the water’s edge, storing fat to get them through their migration and the first few weeks of their breeding season farther north. Again, Black Skimmers, Roseate Spoonbills, Least Terns, Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, Brown Pelicans, and all the herons and egrets are loafing, courting, building nests, laying eggs, and incubating on barrier islands, marsh and mangrove bay islands, and the shores of the Gulf Coast. Again, I am in a boat, looking for oil, walking shores with eyes turned, not upward to the sky to watch birds in flight, but downward to the sand, looking for evidence of risk to the birds and the foods on which they rely.
One year ago today, the Deepwater Horizon had not yet exploded, killing 11 people and injuring many more. Oil had not yet started to gush into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil had not begun to wash up onto the shores of East Grand Terre, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Morgan, Dauphin Island, and Grand Isle. Birds had not been oiled, were not yet being rescued.
So it must be 2011. Because there is oil thick in some of those marshes, and there are tar balls strewn by wavelets across miles and miles of beach. And as the temperature climbs, the oil in the system is softening, liquefying, oozing, bubbling up from within the contaminated sands and soils of the central Gulf.
As the oil liquefies, it will again coat the feathers of birds, many of them lightly enough that they will still be able to fly, fish, preen, and incubate eggs. These oiled birds will ingest some oil, which still contains harmful chemicals. They will still suffer more stress in trying to clean and waterproof those compromised feathers. Some of them will still carry oil back to their nests, oiling eggs and nestlings, perhaps causing slower growth, deformities, or even death among the sensitive chicks. Some birds may not find enough food for their young to survive, if enough invertebrates, fish or crustaceans died or left the spill-contaminated waters.
As a population biologist, I know that we must focus on conserving populations of birds, and I am concerned about the additional stress on the beach and marsh-dependent species already suffering population declines. As an ecologist, I know that when we tug on one thread in a web as complex and interconnected as the Gulf ecosystem, we know not what other threads will tremble, quake, or even break.
As a deeply connected human, I know that this oil disaster is very significant. It is very significant to the fiddler crab, so dark it is nearly impossible to distinguish from the oil it is crawling through. It is very significant to the tiniest hermit crab I've ever seen, making its brave and unwitting way through a pool of sheen. And to the jaunty Seaside Sparrow that may snap up the little crabs, or feed them to its precious chicks. To the frigatebird, rescued only because it is also inexplicably injured, shrinking against the back of its cage. And to me. As a deeply connected person, it is of terrible significance to me.

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