Ship traffic may have reopened on Galveston Bay after a collision between a ship and a barge spilled up to 168,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Gulf of Mexico Saturday, but the effects of the spill on wildlife are only just beginning to be understood.
The spill, which dumped what one Texas official referred to as “sticky, gooey, thick, tarry” oil that doesn’t evaporate quickly into Galveston Bay, occurred about eight miles from the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, which attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds each year. March is right around spring migration for many species of birds, and other birds are still wintering at Bolivar Flats, so tens of thousands of birds are living at the sanctuary, which is designated a Globally Significant Important Bird Area. Cleanup crews are using cannon booms to try to deter birds away from oiled beaches, and so far, oil hasn’t washed up on Bolivar Flats, but birds that have come in contact with oil in the water or on other beaches have been landing there.
Houston Audubon Society volunteers have been tracking the oiled birds they see at Bolivar, and Jessica Jubin, development director at the Houston Audubon Society, told ThinkProgress that the group was “definitely seeing more” oiled birds now than when they first started the day after the spill. She said on Monday, volunteers cataloged 40 to 50 oiled birds at one spot at Bolivar Flats, and on Tuesday, they counted about 100 at the same site. On Wednesday, she said, the number increased to about 140, with most birds ranging from just a few spots of oil on them to half covered in oil.
It’s the shorebirds and seabirds that are most at risk of becoming oiled from the spill, Jubin said.
“Like pelicans, for example — I don’t know if you’ve ever watched them fish, but they will soar in the sky and then spot something down below and then dart right into the water, and that’s how they get so much oil on them,” she said. “They can’t distinguish whether or not the oil is there, and they don’t know how to react to it.”
Mike Cox, spokesperson at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told ThinkProgress the agency has so far collected 45 oiled birds in the Galveston area, with 19 birds in rehabilitation and 26 that were found dead. Jubin said Audubon was reporting birds they saw to Texas Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but she worries about the movement of the oil. If it drifts too far south or west, it could end up in important habitat for endangered whooping cranes. Already, the oil has reached the ecologically-sensitive Matagorda Island, soiling at least 12 miles of the barrier island’s pristine beaches. So far, however, the Parks and Wildlife Department hasn’t received reports of oiled wildlife from Matagorda Island, Cox said, and crews were working to put up booms to keep the oil from getting into Matagorda Bay.
But birds aren’t the only wildlife at risk from the oil spill. As the Texas Tribune reports, marine scientists are worried that the spill could result in long-term health effects on Texas marine life. The thick fuel oil that spilled Saturday is persistent, so marine species could be even more at risk from oil-related defects like irregular heart rhythm and cardiac arrest than they were from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Shrimp are a major part of the Galveston Bay fishing industry, and they’re also among the species most vulnerable to the oil spill — if their marshy homes are polluted with oil, they may not survive.
Officials have also warned of human health effects from the spill, including inhaling oil vapors or oil particles in water spray, which can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. They’ve also warned of the dangers of contaminated seafood, and have advised the public to stay away from oiled areas.