Galveston Bay Oil Spill Imperils Thousands of Birds

Audubon is on the ground helping oiled birds and monitoring slick movements after Saturday’s accident.

Texas City, at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, was the site of a massive oil spill on Saturday, an industrial accident with dire consequences for birds and wildlife throughout Galveston Bay.

The spill, the result of a collision between a ship and a barge, unleashed nearly 170,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Though the volume of spill is low compared to the 210 million gallons that leaked into the gulf during the Deepwater Horizon Spill four years ago, the spill is nonetheless a serious environmental crisis.

In an unhappy coincidence, Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill, when 11 million gallons of crude oil oozed into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Thousands of gallons of oil still poison the coasts, likely preventing the local ecosystem from ever recovering.

“Part of the reason that this was a significant spill was not because of the amount of oil, but because of the proximity that it has to natural habitat and globally important wildlife sanctuaries,” says Richard Gibbons, Conservation Director for Houston Audubon Society. “There are over 1,000 acres of sanctuary nearby.”

Most of that land is contained by Bolivar Flats, a Globally Significant Important Bird Area, which hosts 50,000 to 70,000 shore and waterbirds each migration season. The timing of the spill is especially unfortunate: Spring migration is already well underway, as is breeding season for colonial species. Ten bird species are especially vulnerable to the oil slick: piping plovers, brown pelicans, black skimmers, American oystercatchers, reddish egrets, red knots, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, snowy plovers, and Wilson’s plovers all winter at the flats.

Audubon spoke to Gibbons as he examined turnstone and sanderling flocks at Bolivar Flats. Though oil has yet come ashore at the flats themselves, oiled birds have already appeared.

“Right now I’m looking at a ruddy turnstone that looks like a black turnstone, covered head to toe,” said Gibbons. At this writing, more than 50 oiled birds have been found, and six have died.

Illiana Peña, Conservation Director for Audubon Texas, spent Monday looking for slicks and oiled birds near North Deer Island, an Audubon-owned waterbird rookery that lies seven miles south and west of the spill site, and which has largely been spared by tides and wind direction. She and her team found no evidence of the oil reaching the island, and none of the pelicans, terns, and gulls showed signs of having come into contact with the oil.

Still, birds foraging out at sea might encounter the oil and track it back to the island, where they nest in the thousands. The local great blue herons are already hatching chicks, underlining the urgency of cleanup before other breeding species begin seeing hatchlings.

Remediation is already on the minds of responders at Galveston Bay, who note several factors that might make habitat recovery a tricky enterprise.

For one, the oil itself is tar oil, a dirtier, stickier variety that does not disperse as easily regular crude. And the mudflats of Bolivar Flats can’t be cleaned with a simple scrubbing. “They’re not like rocky beaches, which you can spray clean,” says Peña of Audubon Texas.

For now, the hope is that the oil remains in the Gulf waters long enough to clump for easier removal. And patrols of the sanctuaries at both Bolivar Flats and North Deer Island will continue until the slick is contained.

“We’ve been here for 15 years,” says Gibbons. “We’re not going anywhere.” 

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