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Galveston Bay Oil Spill: What We Birders Can Do

The March 22 spill of 168,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker fuel into Galveston Bay can be expected to take a huge toll on migrating, nesting, and still-wintering birds. If you want to donate money to help, Houston Audubon seems to be the go-to organization right now. But whether or not you can make a financial contribution, if you spend time on the Texas coast this spring, you can make a vitally important difference in what happens next, by submitting the sightings of every oiled bird you see into eBird. Enter the species, numbers, time, and place as always, and for each bird click “Add Details,” then click “Oiled Birds.” Provide photos whenever possible.

Even though eBird can be the perfect repository for this wealth of data, how can entering bird sightings actually help this horrible situation?

After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, volunteers and professionals descended upon Alaska in huge numbers. Some volunteers may have gotten in the way here and there, but with all those eyes and cameras bearing witness to the devastation, there was no way that Exxon could hide the environmental damage and the toll on wildlife. The final tally for oiled birds was between 100,000 and 250,000 oiled seabirds and at least 247 Bald Eagles. Thanks to the huge public outcry, the issue of single-hulled tankers was kept alive, and a great deal of pressure was put on Congress to enact legislation to strengthen protections for our vital waterways.

After the BP spill in 2010, I was disillusioned to see how dramatically things had changed. Only a handful of volunteers and very few professionals went to the Gulf. Marge Gibson, past president of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and the woman who led the team recovering oiled Bald Eagles after the Exxon Valdez spill, was turned away from helping—literally prohibited from providing her valuable expertise—as were countless other specialists experienced in retrieving oiled pelicans and other birds along the Florida and California coasts. BP, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, conservation organizations, and the media gave out phone numbers for people to call if they wanted to help, and those of us who called were told we’d be notified if our services were necessary, but I know of no one who was ever called back. Qualified people with years of expertise in helping animals after oil spills waited for phone calls or email that never came. Marge Gibson waited for months with her bags packed.

Marge writes:

What changed between the Exxon and BP spills was that the companies learned from what they considered Exxon’s P.R. mistakes.  They learned that preventing access to the area and trying to minimize photographic evidence was the way to go.  If the public doesn’t see it, it does not exist.  Exxon has been judged severely for the Valdez accident, but in fact, after the spill they did their honest best, enlisting top scientists worldwide that were not just suits—they wore survival gear because they were physically on site—in ships and on the ground.  I was there. I worked with them.

That spill was an open book not only for the public, but for the scientists that worked on it.  B.P. decided that was not good because scientists document their work and put the data and their findings in the literature where it is available forever. The scientists who were allowed to produce studies in the aftermath of the BP spill had to sign away their rights to publish any of them for at least 5 years.

Yes, Exxon made mistakes. But it wasn’t Exxon who declared that oil companies could use single hulls again. Exxon allowed every aspect of the spill and the cleanup to be an open book. We could have learned how to reduce the potential for future spills, but all that seems to have been learned is how to do more effective cover-ups to minimize liability as much as humanly possible.

From the standpoint of wildlife conservation, the specific critical change between the 1989 Exxon spill and the 2010 BP spill is in the protocol for counting oiled animals—the only means of assessing damage to wildlife. After the Exxon spill, EVERY oiled animal that was seen was counted. Even though a quarter million oiled birds were documented, this number is considered by most authorities to be a gross underestimate, considering the huge area involved and how many birds, tiny and large, washed away undetected in the vast ocean.

With the BP spill, the new policy was to count only those oiled birds that were physically collected—picked up dead or alive. Minimizing the toll further, only a handful of people were authorized to retrieve these animals. Unauthorized people who found an oiled animal of any species were supposed to call a number and give directions to the animal, but were not allowed to not touch it or remove it under threat of heavy fines and jail.

Even authorized people were prohibited from capturing any bird still capable of flight. And “flight” was defined to include even the most pathetic fluttering. This Black-crowned Night-Heron that I photographed at the edge of Cat Island in Barataria Bay after the BP spill is not included in the official count of oiled birds.

Oiled Heron

Our boat spooked it and it fluttered a few feet into the water and then struggled to shore. Our boat captain told us that because none of us were authorized to collect oiled animals, he would lose his license if we did anything to try to save it. He also said that he was prohibited from calling in people who were authorized to retrieve oiled birds because it was still “flying.” I wish I were making this up.

The timing, during nesting season, made the situation even worse. In the weeks following the explosion, birders and other experts clearly observed that 50 to 80 percent of the 10,000 breeding birds on Raccoon Island were oiled. Yet not one of those birds is included in the official count of oiled wildlife. Thanks to another bizarre rule change, people who’d been permitted to take photos and videos of nesting birds on the island before the spill were shooed away, and even those people authorized to collect wildlife were prohibited from approaching the island, ostensibly to ensure nesting success of unoiled birds. Just the oiled adult birds on Raccoon Island would have doubled the final count of oiled birds, yet not one of them, nor any of their oiled eggs and chicks, nor a single oiled bird on other nesting colonies, is included in the official total.

I rejoined ABA in the aftermath of the BP spill because ABA sponsored and provided a forum for Drew Wheelan, the only birder consistently and steadily out in the field throughout the aftermath. Drew tirelessly and against a great many forces documented everything he saw about the disaster. I spent a few weeks down there in July and August, and saw for myself that everything Drew had written about was true. As far as I’m concerned, ABA proved itself a true conservation organization by using our strength—birding expertise—to document the effects of the spill on birds.

Drew Wheelan

Some people speculate that rehabilitating oiled birds is not worth the cost and effort, when that money and energy could be going to support projects with the potential to help far greater numbers of birds. Even though I strongly believe that rehabilitating oiled birds is worth it, I agree that the subject is debatable. But the timing of the debate always seems to come right on the heels of these disasters, and following the BP spill, that debate played right into BP’s hands. Even some normally conscientious conservationists criticized the effort of retrieving these birds, presumably not realizing why retrieving these birds was so very important.

Regardless of the value of wildlife rehab, under current rules, the only oiled wildlife included in official numbers are ones that have been retrieved, dead or alive. This matters. It’s these official numbers that are used to assess damages against responsible parties. Thanks to the changes in protocol, barely 7,000 birds are in the official total of oiled wildlife after the BP spill. Just 7,000, compared to the quarter million in the official total after the Exxon Valdez spill. The National Wildlife Federation has a webpage directly comparing the two spills, but they present only the official numbers with no mention whatsoever that the method of counting changed so dramatically between the two events.

This is why it’s crucial that we birders document EVERY oiled bird. eBird is the way to do this. It will take a lot of work for scientists to identify and take out double counted birds and tease out the meaning and validity of the numbers, but only with a robust body of data can we establish with any accuracy at all the magnitude of damage from this spill.

For updates on the Galveston Bay oil spill and what you can do to help, please see Houston Audubon’s website.

To sign a petition to encourage access for rehabbers and accurate reporting of oiled birds, go here.

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson has been in love with birds since she was a small child. She started birding after she received binoculars and a field guide for Christmas in 1974. Since then, her philosophy of life has been that “no one should go through life listlessly,” and she’s devoted herself to promoting the love, understanding, and protection of birds. She’s served as science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, rehabbed wild birds for over two decades, written five books about birds, contributed to Audubon, Birding, and BirdWatching magazine, and for the past 25 years has produced, as an unpaid volunteer for several community radio stations, a daily radio spot about birds podcast at Laura lives with an Eastern Screech-Owl licensed for education as well as her amazingly tolerant non-birder husband.
  • Rob Fowler

    Great article, Laura, and thanks for explaining the protocol from the BP spill. Atrocious was the first non four-letter word I could come up with. I have tried to share this article and when I click the Facebook icon or copy and paste the link it say’s “page not found”? Thanks!

    • Laura Erickson

      The link still works–someone smarter than me at ABA will fix that “page not found” thing.

      • Rob Fowler

        Yeah…Nate is working on it, I guess. Thanks again for taking the time to write this up, Laura.

  • Laura Erickson

    I’ve posted a petition at White House .gov about this. This is a governmental page, so shouldn’t have any of the money requests that most petitions do. The URL is It won’t go to Obama unless we have 100,000 signatures in one month.

  • Sharon Johnston

    Thanks for this. I belong to a group on Gabriola Island, just off the coast of British Columbia, that is fighting to stop the expansion of pipelines and oil tankers in BC. Oiled birds is just one of the many reasons we need to do this – but it’s a big one, for me. If it’s okay with you, I’ll share your excellent article on the Gabriola Bird Blog.

    • Laura Erickson

      Yes! Please do.

      • Sharon Johnston


  • J Miller

    What is the policy/protocol &/or legislation that must be changed? Is it USFW?
    How was it changed for BP? Press coverage has only said that a contract service of highly qualified individuals is caring for recovered wildlife…and showing birders w/ binocs…is ABA &/or Houston Audubon instructing them on the essentials of scientific documentation? Thank you for this disturbing but much needed info. Also note: Bloomberg news reported 3/25/14 that the tanker’s operator pled guilty in 2011 & given 3 years probation for federal environmental pollution violation. The channel is now reopened as the slick moves elsewhere into the Gulf.

    • Laura Erickson

      It’s been impossible to find actual documentation of how the rules were changed, and it’s been like “Calvinball,” where things are still changing. Someone said on the news that rehabbers in Galveston Bay are only allowed to be capturing birds “in the water,” meaning oiled birds on the shore have to be left there. After the BP spill, people at the local EPA lab were told they could go and help with the cleanup and animal recovery, though none of them were experienced. One of the amazing things for me is how people were assigned jobs they had no expertise in while people who DID have expertise, experience, and federal licenses were prohibited from helping! I went to a news/media special session at a wildlife rehab clinic in early August. All the birds they were treating were Northern Gannets. One reporter asked the OFFICIAL U.S. F.& W. spokesman why they were all immature gannets, and he said they were mystified, but suspected that the adults knew how to recognize and avoid oil. He seemed well-meaning, but obviously did not have a clue that adult gannets in August are up on their breeding grounds, nowhere near the Gulf. Immatures usually remain in more southern waters for a year or more, so were the ONLY gannets in the Gulf that summer.

      • JMiller

        Laura…Many thanks for your research, your concern & for getting the word out. Looking forward to more information on this.

  • mbsledge

    So, who made these new rules & by what process were they put in place? Can they not be challenged?

  • Ted Lee Eubanks

    Here are groups that need your help and support that live and work on Galveston Bay. Please consider supporting any and all/or of the following.

    The Galveston Bay Foundation-

    Houston Audubon Society-

    Artist Boat-

    • Laura Erickson

      Thanks, Ted! People working on the ground are really where we need to turn first. But I learned after the BP spill that they can’t always be forthright about what’s happening on some levels, so reporting ALL oiled birds to eBird will help enormously with getting a more accurate count. The rehab centers that work on this are extremely professional, but are limited to counting only what they take in. And the people rescuing or collecting oiled wildlife have some weird rules. For example, someone in Texas told me that one of them said on the news that they could only pick up birds in the water. If this means what it sounded like, that will lower the count a lot.

      • Ted Lee Eubanks

        Laura, I know these people. HAS will do what is necessary to get the count right. Remember, we went through the BP spill as well. I completely agree with what you are saying, but do not discount what our local groups are capable of accomplishing. BP showed us locally that the national groups and organizations will happily ignore the locals while chasing their own goals (often related to fundraising). Let’s do this right. Support the locals.

        • Laura Erickson

          Ted, the whole point of my post was to explain that the bird toll from the BP spill was woefully undercounted. They have changed the rules of what oiled birds are “countable” in official tallies since the Exxon Valdez. We need to go back to counting ALL oiled birds, whether or not they are picked up.

  • Rick Hollis

    Great note, great lesson for us all.

  • Mikal Deese

    I too know of experienced rehabilitators who were never able to help in the Gulf. As I understand it, “capitol O” oil is very concerned that we “untrained” do-gooders do not experience any ill effects from exposure to their toxic substances. That is the rational for keeping volunteers out of harm’s way, even when we feel we can be useful. I wish I were reassured that their concern was for our health rather than for their liability. Nevertheless, when volunteering it may help if one can show evidence of previous training in specific oil spill safety protocols. Several organizations have organized training classes. Also the IWRC, the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, has a short on-line training class in Oil Spill Volunteering. The fee is moderate and a certificate is awarded. Unfortunately, we know there will be a next time.

    • Laura Erickson

      It did not help with Marge Gibson, who actually LED the Bald Eagle rehab team in Prince Edward Sound, and had done a great deal of oil spill work off the coast of California after spills. She was PRESIDENT of the IWRC. Yet she was prohibited from going down there after the BP spill. Again, I wish I were making this up.

  • Laura Erickson

    Here is a link to the USFWS page regarding oiled wildlife data after the BP spill. The Consolidated Wildlife Reports published each week were the only numbers provided by USFWS or any of its partner organizations, and remain the only numbers available for assessing the impact on wildlife of the spill.

  • Laura Erickson

    Some people have back-channeled me that USFWS wanted a robust, neutral way of assessing bird mortality after spills, which is why they changed the protocol to count strictly birds picked up rather than all the ones seen. Which could have been a reasonable approach except that it makes comparisons with earlier spills using the “count them all” approach impossible. If they wanted to change protocols, they should have encouraged people to count them all as happened with the Exxon spill AND started their own protocol, so we could actually see and study how the numbers compared. Over time, when we had data about the relative validity of both methods, we could switch to the simpler method of counting just collected birds, while still being able to accurately extrapolate the overall number of birds oiled.

    But in the particular situation of the BP spill, by SO restricting which birds could be retrieved and who was allowed to retrieve them, cutting out large numbers of licensed rehabbers with specific expertise in retrieving oiled birds, the number of birds collected was skewed to be relatively far smaller than the numbers retrieved in previous spills. This means we can’t even make accurate comparisons of the impact of the BP spill to different oil spills based strictly on the birds retrieved in each–the BP one still appears of less magnitude relative to the others because of the extraordinary limits imposed on this data collection.

  • Dark Hawk 98

    I have been thinking about how to change the dynamics so that licensed wildlife rehabbers can be a part of the first response to events that threaten wildlife, especially oil spills. One of the strategies that should be considered, is to have conversations with their state and federal licensing authorities about how to become integrated into these incidents from the first minute onward. They need to figure out how to integrate themselves with the national emergency management system so that they are organizationally at least, “in the system” and full participants from the moment an incident happens. For those of us birders who come from these governmental agencies, we are more than likely familiar with the incident command system as participants.

    The national Incident Command System (ICS) requires that all participants be trained before they can participate in managing emergencies. So we as organizations need to become insiders within this system just as the oil companies and utility companies have become. It will take some coordinated effort at a national level in order to be part of the ICS system and the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

    When I was a fire fighter, there were a series of training classes readily available online from FEMA. These classes inform on how incidents are managed and how the organizational system operates. These classes were required before anyone can participate on an emergency.

    Here are some links that might be helpful.

    • Laura Erickson

      Great information! I hope this CAN be integrated into response. It will help if 1) birders stop denigrating wildlife rehabilitation, because rehabbers are the ones with the skills and experience to retrieve injured or oiled wildlife in the field, and 2) we can get USFWS to cooperate. Marge Gibson, quoted in my article, has been at the forefront of people skilled in retrieving birds after spills. As I mentioned in one comment, people from other agencies, with NO wildlife experience, were being enlisted to get the training and help retrieve wildlife, while the people who had specific experience and were licensed to handle wildlife were not allowed to get the training. I’m unfortunately just an individual without any ties to governmental or non-profit groups who are in a position to make changes, so I’m depending on the kindness and help of strangers to get the changes enacted. I was licensed as a rehabber for many years, but never myself was involved with oiled wildlife.

      • Steve H

        It is a very challenging problem to solve.

        On a personal note, it is fortunate that you are an individual who has a deep passion to see that there is a problem. We all know change begins with but the first step. Sometimes, that first step is halting and stumbling but it is the first one that needs to be taken to affect change.

        We know it can be done, all we have to do is look at the success of the annual Christmas Bird Count, if not for Frank Chapman’s first step, our passions for birds would more than likely not exist today.

        In order to be successful, Audubon, ABA, AOU, National Wildlife Federation, The Wildlife Society along with the avian veterinarian community will all have to come together and speak with one voice in order to be heard.

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  • Sunil Gopalan

    The rules governing damage assessment from an oil spill are more like guidelines. Post Exxon-Valdez, in 1996 NOAA came up with the rules on Natural Resource Damage Assessment which are driven off the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The rulebook is available here:

    One of the items in the OPA regulatory language requires the establishment of a baseline from which to calculate the incremental damage caused by the spill and specifically lists counts of oiled birds/carcasses as a measure of this damage. Further, oiled birds are evidence in establishing recovery costs and as such requires chain-of-custody and other measures to be legally defensible.

    The rulebook gives a lot of leeway to the trustees actually making the assessment, but I suspect that it has been interpreted in a way to disallow any actions that might contradict the guidelines for collection of the evidence.

    I’m simply offering this as information on why things might have changed – intent aside, it clearly seems to have changed things negatively – specifically for the purposes of comparing with previous events or for that matter general public perception of the seriousness of an event.

    Similar observations were made in the study on marine mammals affected by Deepwater Horizon:

  • MediaMentions

    With oil spills back in the news with a vengeance ( thanks to the Michigan incident, I’m beginning to get a sense of the extent of damage caused, and for me the worst part is that its the helpless ecosystems that suffer most. Great article by the way.

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  • Rodney Gantt

    no time to read article but I know I’d agree. I live in SC where the hick bastards that run the state won’t even let solar energy in.

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