by Barbara Callahan
On April 20, 2010 the drilling rig the Deepwater Horizon - owned by Transocean, the world’s largest offshore oil drilling contractor, and leased by the multinational oil company BP - exploded approximately fifty miles off the Louisiana coast in 5,000 ft of water. The resulting ocean floor rupture has been continuously gushing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the past four weeks. In a closed-door briefing with members of the US Congress, BP officials conceded the rupture could be spewing as much as 60,000 barrels a day. Many officials worry the leak could go on for months.
It is still too early to determine what impact this oil spill will have on the wildlife of the Gulf Region – not only on the mega-fauna, such as the birds, cetaceans and turtles, but also on the fish and fisheries in the region. As with the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, there will be impacts on the wildlife for decades to come and an entire group of scientists will be needed to study the area in detail to determine the loss of specific populations, genetic diversity, whole age classes of certain animals, and the potential loss of productive fisheries. After Exxon Valdez many species were impacted. While some have returned to pre-spill population levels, there are others that have not recovered, such as the pigeon guillemot.
The Gulf of Mexico has a diverse array of wildlife including manatees, whales, sea turtles, and seabirds. Many spend much of their lives at sea. In a typical marine oil spill, the majority of animals collected for treatment are marine birds; and, very occasionally seals or turtles. Though seals, turtles, whales and other cetaceans are significantly impacted, they are rarely found after an oil spill. These marine animals spend their lives at sea, and if they are suffering from the toxic effects of ingesting oil they die at sea, only to be discovered if they happen to wash ashore.
As I write this article, I have been activated to the Gulf spill. I began working as a wildlife biologist for the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) in 1997 on their oil spill response team. Based in a command center in Alabama, I will be helping to manage the oiled bird recovery program. While there aren’t generally huge rafts of seabirds floating fifty miles offshore that are at risk of being oiled, the oil is highly mobile and will make its way toward the coastline threatening both brown and white pelicans, herons, anhingas, cormorants, spoonbills, ibis, and many other species.
Seabirds have adapted to life within the marine environment. Their single most important feature is their ability to protect their bodies from the cold temperature of seawater. Their outer contour feathers act like a dry suit, trapping warm air next to their skin with soft, downy feathers, completely preventing water from getting in. When these feathers have oil on them, they are no longer able to provide a waterproof barrier. Water passes the outer feathers and the soft downy feathers become wet and lose their insulating properties increasing their susceptibility to hypothermia. Once oiled, seabirds lose their buoyancy, their ability to stay warm, and can even lose their ability to fly.
When their waterproofing is degraded, birds often beach themselves. Once on land, they are no longer able to eat or drink and become dehydrated and malnourished very quickly. In a warm climate such as the Gulf, oiled seabirds are at risk of hyperthermia sitting in the hot sun. Depending on whether they are in water or on land, hypo- or hyperthermia is usually the first thing to kill oiled seabirds.
Although animals such as sea turtles and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) don’t rely on feathers to keep them warm, they are also at risk. Sea turtles will often eat small blobs of oil thinking it is food and quickly suffer from the toxicity. Cetaceans can surface in a floating patch of oil and inhale volatile fumes that can cause inhalation pneumonia, as well as skin and tracheal burns, on top of the toxicity of ingesting oil.
There is a political window of change that opens after a large oil spill - a time when new regulations are passed and people are willing to make significant changes. After the devastating Erika spill off the coast of France in 1999 and the 2002 Prestige spill off the Spanish Coast, proposals to accelerate the phase-out of single-hull tankers was passed by the International Maritime Organization, an inter-governmental organization that acts as a regulatory system for global shipping. After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the U.S. passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) which included strong mandates for oil spill response that also addressed wildlife.
As an organization, the IBRRC has almost four decades of experience working with the oil industry. We regularly contract with them to write contingency plans, to provide wildlife training, and to develop exercises to practice spill response skills. Interestingly, the highest safety standards we have seen throughout the world have come from the major oil industry companies. I am always astounded by how many countries, with a huge dependence on oil, have little or no oil spill response plans in place. There are even fewer with plans for the wildlife that become impacted after an oil spill. The plans that do exist are generally associated with the major oil companies in the region.
As long as there is oil in the Gulf of Mexico, there will continue to be a threat to wildlife in the area. To date, the Incident Command of the Deep Water Horizon Response has employed a full Wildlife Branch, which includes experts from both Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research and the IBRRC. The Incident Command has set up four wildlife centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. IBRRC teams are actively working on “Search and Collection,” as well as staffing the four rehabilitation centers to ensure that everything possible will be done to mitigate this situation.
While it is emotionally difficult to see animals suffering, particularly when they are suffering from something caused by humans, I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to help animals in distress. I know that we can provide supportive care for these specialized animals, clean them, recondition them, and when they are fully recovered and as healthy as possible, release them. If the animal is not likely to recover, I feel that humane euthanasia to alleviate their suffering is the kindest thing that we can do.
While we are not always able to save every animal, I think releasing them from their suffering is important. We are often asked if the birds know we are trying to help them. The reality is that these are wild animals who perceive us as predators each and every time we handle them, and we have to work to limit the stresses of captivity.
About the Author
Barbara Callahan is IBRRC's Director of Response Services. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Science from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where her studies included avian hematology and microbiology. Barbara has helped to manage dozens of oiled wildlife responses in several countries and been part of oiled wildlife response planning, training and rescue in many countries around the world.