The March 22 collision between a ship and a barge carrying up to 4,000 barrels of “sticky, gooey, thick, tarry” bunker fuel oil in Galveston Bay, Texas has resulted in more than 200,000 pounds of oiled sand and debris accumulating along some 22 miles of shoreline on the Texas coast.
The spill, which shut down the busy Houston Ship Channel for three days, has had wide-ranging economic and ecological impacts. Areas surrounding the spill are environmentally sensitive and provide crucial stopover points for a number of migrating bird species. These include whooping cranes, one of North America’s rarest birds, which winter on the nearby Matagorda Island. Parts of the island have been contaminated by oil from the spill. Fewer than half of the whooping cranes have started this year’s migration north, and officials are taking extra precaution not to disturb them during cleanup efforts.
As of Thursday, the Coast Guard had recovered 329 oiled birds from Galveston Bay to North Padre Island, most of them dead. According to the Texas Tribune, birds affected by the spill include ducks, herrings, herons, brown and white pelicans, sanderlings, loons, willets, black-bellied plover and the piping plover.
CREDIT: flickr/Coast Guard News
Marine life in the area is also suffering. Since the ship and barge collided, 29 dead dolphins have been found in the vicinity of Galveston Bay. A total of 47 dead dolphins were found in March, above the average of 34 and triple last years’ 15. Scientists are working to determine if the oil spill played a role in the elevated number of deaths. A high number of deceased dolphins are typically found during what’s referred to as the “stranding season” between January and March, and it’s possible that more are being found this year because of the increase in coastal workers helping with the cleanup.
Whether oil is responsible for the deaths of the dolphins or not, there will likely be long-term chronic health impacts for marine life, including irregular heart rhythm and cardiac arrest, which have been found to be associated with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf several years ago.
A shrimp boat captain also reportedly caught an entire catch of shrimp coated in oil, furthering concern about the spill’s impact on the seafood industry. Already local businesses are saying shrimp sales have taken a hit because of public perception. Fishermen and bait shop owners are suing over the spill, and on Friday a federal judge ordered the seizure of the cargo ship involved in the collision. The ship, called the Summer Wind, must remain in the area as an ongoing Coast Guard investigation attempts to determine who was at fault for the collision.