Earlier this week, researchers advocating for victims of the BP oil spill released a peer-reviewed paper for press review indicating that upwards of 800,000 coastal birds died as a direct result of the April 2010 catastrophe.
Research by J. Christopher Haney, Harold J. Geiger and Jeffrey W. Short — with Terra Mar Applied Sciences in Nev., and St. Hubert Research Group and JWS Consulting in Alaska, respectively — will be published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress.
Audubon soon thereafter, on May 6, released a press release in which they both heralded the research, but also upped the expected bird mortality numbers.
Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said of the report,
This is a horrific number – by far the highest ever for an oil spill – and it’s only a piece of the picture. We expect a final death toll in the seven figures, and sadly, that’s not a surprise for a disaster this immense.
Meanwhile, BP continues its outrageous scheme to delay and deny justice while earning interest on the funds it owes the Gulf Coast, its people and its birds. The Justice Department must press hard to move this case forward and stop BP’s stalling.
Even so, NOAA’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment has not yet completed, and clearly, any research done to assist the victims will be countered by BP, who have seriously questioned the high numbers.
In an e-mailed statement, BP spokesman Jason Ryan pointed out what could be bias on the part of the researchers.
He said the paper’s authors have “been unsuccessful in their efforts to bring wildlife-related claims against BP, and the lead author himself works for an organization that has been unsuccessful in its efforts to sue BP over purported wildlife impacts.”
Ryan added that BP’s estimate of the percentage of dead birds that washed ashore, 70 percent, is far greater than what the authors allege, which is only one percent. Ryan says this is based on NRDA studies “conducted at the height of the response”.
None of this changes the fact, though, that during the height of the 95-day “spill” in the Gulf, far more birds perished than were accounted for at the time.
Melanie Driscoll, Dir. of Bird Conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative, told the Examiner today that there were myriad reasons why it was impossible to count accurately during the spill.
One issue, certainly, was that Audubon and others involved in the rescue did not want to disturb birds’ natural nesting habits.
“In Louisiana, pelicans can start to nest in January or February,” Driscoll says. “Many birds aren’t done nesting until August or September, so that meant that there was no intrusion onto the barrier islands [by rescuers] when most of the birds were concentrated for months into the spill.”
Further, there were also other factors, she says. Whereas, say, with a rocky shoreline or sandy beach, walking along to look for carcasses would be fairly simple. “But with a ragged marsh edge, where you may have thousands of miles of interlaced coast, any birds drifting into that area would be very hard to spot or count.”
There are “lots of specifics to this spill”, and this meant both that Audubon was “unsurprised by low carcass counts [during the height of the spill] and also unsurprised by the very high estimate now. We knew many carcasses wouldn’t be collected … [in part] because of decisions made during the spill [e.g. not disturbing the nests],” Driscoll says.
She adds that due to the warmth down here, it can be tough to count numbers accurately.
“If you think about a spill in a cold environment, birds tend to die right away, such as they did in Prince William Sound [following the Exxon Valdez disaster.],” says Driscoll. “But the Gulf is warm and has a lot more scavengers and predators, so I expect many carcasses disappeared into the bellies of (tiger) sharks or decomposed before any chance to reach [land].”
According to the authors of the paper, four bird species perished the most: laughing gulls (losing an estimated 36 percent of the northern Gulf population); royal tern (losing 15 percent fo the population); the brown pelican at 12 percent; and the northern gannet at 8 percent.
Driscoll says that the laughing gull population is not threatened in the US, so that’s not the specie she is most concerned with. BP will be paying more for the loss of endangered species under terms of NRDA, the results of which could be released tomorrow or even months from now. It is impossible to say at this point, says Driscoll.
As for whether future bird populations are dwindling, that too is unknown.
Looking at another model, of the 2002 Prestige oil spill off the coasts of France, Portugal and Spain, Driscoll says that showed a dramatic reduction in bird reproduction, but that was after 10 years.
So much is not yet known about the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, perhaps especially how future generations of Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican, and other coastal birds will fare.
To read Audubon’s response to the paper, please click here.
Note: this story was edited at 3:25 Central Time to incorporate Ryan’s comments, which are only a portion of his written statement to this examiner.
Hyperlinks and bold marks are those of the examiner’s.
Audubon’s initial report on the study is here: http://mag.audubon.org/articles/conservation/more-one-million-birds-died…