Archive for Wildlife

Tracking Fish with Acoustic Telemetry—Implementation of an Exciting Technology in Lake Pontchartrain

May 31, 2016 | Posted by Emily McCalla in Hunting and Fishing, Science, Wildlife

By Nic Dixon, Outreach Associate, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and many other fisheries organizations and scientists worldwide have traditionally used fish tags to keep track of fish populations. You may have even applied these simple dart-tipped plastic tags to a fish yourself. Standard fish tagging efforts (in part) identify where the fish was originally captured, Point A, and then where the fish was recaptured, Point Z. But there is not a clear picture of where these fish were for points B, C, D, etc.

Now, thanks to an acoustic telemetry project, LDWF has been able to pinpoint the exact locations of 244 speckled trout, 64 redfish and 18 bull sharks in the Lake Pontchartrain area.

What exactly is acoustic telemetry you ask? It’s the ability to track animals at a distance using sound. An acoustic transmitter that emits a pinging sound is surgically implanted into the fish. When the fish swims within a half mile of one of the dozens of stationary receivers scattered around Lake Pontchartrain, it records the transmitter’s ping as time, date and fish ID number. This data is downloaded from all of the receivers every 6-8 weeks, and LDWF publishes their data in an interactive map: the LDWF fish tracker.

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Diagram of redfish with an acoustic transmitter. Image credit: Ashley Ferguson, LDWF

Diagram of redfish with an acoustic transmitter. Image credit: Ashley Ferguson, LDWF

This information isn’t just exciting for the intrigued anglers in Lake Pontchartrain, it’s also exciting for scientists, policymakers and conservationists alike. This newly implemented technology has started to shed light on everything from fish migration patterns and habitat preferences to residency time and environmental impacts.

Seeing how fish responded to the brief opening of the Bonnet Carre’ spillway earlier this year is of particular interest. It has allowed us to study how fish might react to a large input of river water during high water events. This technology would also be useful in determining how fish respond to changes resulting from the planned Mid-Breton and Mid-Barataria sediment diversions. Additional research would be needed to understand how this technology can be used to monitor these basins. Nonetheless, an interesting observation was made by Ashley Ferguson, LDWF Biologist and fish telemetry expert, that “under the conditions at the time of the spillway opening, including the cooler water temperatures and the short 22-day opening, adult tagged spotted seatrout (speckled trout) and red drum (redfish) were not observed leaving Lake Pontchartrain.” This observation could help inform how a future sediment diversion might be operated and minimize impact on certain fish populations.

Our coalition of organizations is excited to see this technology being developed and hope its use will extend to other places such as the Breton and Barataria Basins. It could help tremendously with the state’s plan for monitoring and adaptive management of its restoration projects’ impact on fisheries.

Redfish being released back into Lake Pontchartrain after having an acoustic transmitter being surgically implanted. Photo credits: Gabe Griffin, LWDF

Redfish being released back into Lake Pontchartrain after having an acoustic transmitter being surgically implanted. Photo credits: Gabe Griffin, LWDF

 Nic Dixon assists in CRCL community engagement efforts with workshops, interviews, data collection, and any additional communication tasks such as producing and distributing video content. Nic has had a diversity of lab and field research experiences in ecology ranging from the Yukon River Delta in Alaska to the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana. He joined CRCL in 2014 after graduating from Louisiana State University’s School of Renewable Natural Resources.

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Rebuilding after the BP Oil Spill

April 20, 2016 | Posted by Emily McCalla in BP Oil Disaster, Reports, Wildlife

By our partner, National Wildlife Federation. View the original post here.

Six years ago this week, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 men and spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. At the time, many representatives from the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition were on the ground, cataloging the impacts to wildlife and the habitats of the Gulf of Mexico.

Touring Shell Island West. Photo by Jacques Hebert

Six years later, we are still hard at work. Yesterday, National Wildlife Federation released a new, interactive report that looks at what the most recent science says about the impacts of the disaster, and how we can restore the Gulf.

Some of the impacts described in the report:

  • In the first five years after the disaster, more than three-quarters of pregnant bottlenose dolphins in the oiled areas failed to give birth to a live calf.
  • As many as 8.3 billion oysters were lost as a result of the oil spill and response effort. The dramatic reduction in oyster populations imperils the sustainability of the oyster fishery in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
  • In 2010, the oil spill killed between two and five trillion larval fish.
  • The fate of as much as 30 percent of the oil remains unknown to this day.
  • Twenty percent of the adult female Kemp’s ridley sea turtles may have been killed during the disaster, possibly explaining the turtles’ low nest counts.
Twenty percent of the adult female Kemp’s ridley sea turtles may have been killed during the disaster, possibly explaining the turtles’ low nest counts. Photo by National Park Service

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo by National Park Service

Today, we know more about the devastating impacts of oil than ever before — and we also know more about what we can do to restore the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the various legal settlements with BP and the other oil companies, more than $16 billion dollars will ultimately be available for environmental restoration.

We need to make sure that this money is used wisely on projects that benefit the Gulf as a whole.

Coastal Louisiana and the wetlands around the Mississippi River Delta — which were already eroding at an alarming rate pre-spill — received the brunt of the oil that hit the coast. Some marshes and barrier islands still have remnants of BP oil, even six years later.

The money from the settlement means that the very areas that were so badly injured stand a chance to rebound— if we use the settlement money to fund comprehensive, science-based restoration.

This year, on the eve of the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, staff from the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition took a tour of Shell Island West, a barrier island restoration project in Louisiana funded by early Natural Resource Damage Assessment funds. This project will restore approximately 600 acres of beach, dune, and marsh habitat. It is part of the larger Barataria Basin Barrier Shoreline restoration project, which will rebuild the eroding barrier islands that separate the ecologically and economically important Barataria Bay estuary from the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell Island West. Photo by Jacques Hebert

Restoring estuaries like Barataria Bay are key to improving the health of the Gulf of Mexico. Barrier islands serve as a first line of defense, protecting coastal communities from hurricanes and tropical storms. They also form protected areas where freshwater from rivers can mix with the saltier waters of the Gulf, creating nursery areas for many species of wildlife. These protected areas contain a variety of habitats – such as marshes or oyster reefs – that are vital for many different species. Therefore, the Shell Island West project will benefit fish and wildlife that use the barrier island and its beach as well as the marsh on its protected side.

But sadly, in many cases, barrier islands like the Shell Island West are eroding rapidly, leaving both people and wildlife vulnerable.

For our long-term protection, we need to rebuild these critical barrier islands while restoring important habitats like wetlands through sediment diversions and marsh creation. Creating a more natural connection between the Mississippi River and Barataria Bay by building controlled sediment diversions will rebuild and restore wetlands — and it will make projects like the marsh creation and barrier island restoration at Shell Island West more sustainable in the long run.

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Help Count Birds for Science during Audubon’s Annual Christmas Bird Count

December 11, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in Birds, Climate, Science, Wildlife

The National Audubon Society invites birdwatchers to participate in the longest-running citizen science survey, the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). From December 14 through January 5, birders and nature enthusiasts in Louisiana will take part in this tradition, many rising before dawn to participate.

BUFH  - wing feathers

Buff-bellied Hummingbird wintering in Louisiana swamp. Photo: John Hartgerink

“Louisiana is home to millions of birds each winter, including waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds. Understanding how the populations of these birds are changing is revealed through CBC efforts, which is critical for knowing how to best ensure their survival,” says Dr. Erik Johnson, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Louisiana.

Each year, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count mobilizes over 72,000 volunteer bird counters in more than 2,400 locations across the Western Hemisphere. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count utilizes the power of volunteers to track the health of bird populations at a scale that scientists could never accomplish alone. Data compiled in Louisiana will record every individual bird and bird species seen in a specified area, contributing to a vast citizen science network that continues a tradition stretching back more than 100 years.

To date over 200 peer-reviewed articles have resulted from analysis done with Christmas Bird Count data. Bird-related citizen science efforts are also critical to understand how birds are responding to a changing climate. This documentation is what enabled Audubon scientists to discover that 314 species of North American birds are threatened by global warming as reported in Audubon’s groundbreaking Birds and Climate Change Study. The tradition of counting birds combined with modern technology and mapping is enabling researchers to make discoveries that were not possible in earlier decades.

In addition to counting up some of our more common birds, Louisiana CBC participants also look for vagrants – birds that normally spend the winter elsewhere, but made a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Last winter, Louisiana CBC volunteers found a total 254 species of birds, including amazing vagrants like Lucy’s Warbler, Ferrugineous Hawk, and Brown Boobies. What unusual birds will be found this winter?

Birders of all ages are welcome to contribute to this fun, nationwide citizen science project, which provides ornithologists with a crucial snapshot of our native bird populations during the winter months. Each individual count is performed in a count circle with a diameter of 15 miles. At least ten volunteers, including a compiler to coordinate the process, count in each circle. The volunteers break up into small parties and follow assigned routes, counting every bird they see. In most count circles, some people also watch feeders instead of following routes.

Want to get involved?


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What We Know Now About the BP Oil Disaster

November 16, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Science, Seafood, Wildlife

By Ryan Fikes, Staff Scientist, National Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Campaign

This post has been cross-posted from the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Promise blog.

It’s been more than five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. Since that time, a council of federal and state Trustees have been extensively investigating the impacts of the disaster on wildlife and habitats, but that information has been kept under wraps—for use in litigation against BP. Now that the case has settled, this research has finally been made public in a draft Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan.

The impacts to wildlife and their habitats are shocking and far reaching. Despite clean-up efforts and the natural weathering processes over the five years since the spill, oil persists in some habitats where it continues to expose resources in the northern Gulf of Mexico. In many cases, the damage to wildlife and habitats was more severe than previously understood. The ecological linkages of these habitats and communities and their connectivity to the larger Gulf of Mexico ecosystem can result in cascading impacts, influencing the overall health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.

Together, the National Wildlife Federation and Ocean Conservancy scientists have worked to dig in to the massive report and digest its findings. Here is a snapshot of the types and severity of impacts outlined in the draft report.


1. Birds

While the Trustees acknowledge that this is a very conservative estimate, the total number of birds killed by the BP oil disaster is from 56,100 to 102,400 birds. At least 93 species of birds across all five Gulf Coast states were exposed to oil.

2. Beach & Dune Habitat

BP oil covered at least 1,300 miles of the Gulf coastline, including 600 miles of beach, dune and barrier island habitat.

3. Lost Human Use

The public lost 16,857,116 days of boating, fishing and beach-going experiences. The total loss of recreational use of the Gulf due to the disaster is worth $528 million to $859 million.

4. Oysters

Between 4 and 8.3 billion oysters are estimated to have been lost. Over three generations (minimum recovery time), the dead oysters would have produced a total of 240 to 508 million pounds of fresh oyster meat.

5. Salt Marsh

Louisiana lost up to 53 percent of its salt marsh plants across 350-721 miles of shoreline. In Louisiana wetlands, erosion rates approximately doubled along at least 108 miles of shoreline. The effect lasted for at least 3 years.

6. Sargassum

Sargassum, a floating seaweed that provides habitat for young fish and sea turtles, was exposed to oil, which may have caused the loss of up to 23 percent of this important habitat.

7. Seagrass Habitat

Seagrass beds covering a total area roughly the size of 206 football fields (272 acres) were lost from the time of the disaster through 2012.

8. Larval Fish

The Trustees estimated that 2-5 trillion larval fish were killed. The loss of larval fish likely translated into millions to billions of fish that would have reached a year old had they not been killed by the BP oil disaster.

9. Sea Trout

Several of species of sea trout, including the spotted (or speckled) sea trout, were severely impacted by the disaster. An estimated 20-100 billion sea trout larvae were killed as a result of the disaster.

10. Shrimp

The growth of young white, pink and brown shrimp was dramatically affected by oil. The total loss of shrimp production over 2010 and 2011 due to oiling is estimated at more than 2,300 tons.

11. Red Drum

The growth of young red drum fell by up to 47 percent along marsh shorelines in Louisiana that were persistently oiled since 2010, and an estimated 700 tons of red drum were lost. Reduced red drum production persisted through 2013 and is expected to continue.

12. Whales

While nearly all of the species of whales in the footprint of the oil have demonstrable, quantifiable injuries, the most hard-hit was the Bryde’s whale. With only about 50 Bryde’s whales left in the Gulf, roughly half of these animals were exposed to oil—and nearly a quarter were killed. It is unclear if Bryde’s whales will be able to recover.

13. Bottlenose Dolphins

The number of bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay and Mississippi Sound—two areas particularly affected by the disaster—is projected to decline by half. The populations are expected to take 40-50 years to recover. In the 5 years after the oil disaster, more than 75 percent of pregnant dolphins observed within the oil footprint failed to give birth to a viable calf.

14. Coral Reefs

The footprint of injury to mid-depth coral reefs is just over 4 square miles. These areas along the continental shelf edge, known as the Pinnacles, showed extensive damage to both the coral colonies and the reef fish associated with them. The larger ecological functions of this habitat were very likely impaired.

15. Sea Turtles

All five of the Gulf’s sea turtles are either threatened or endangered. It is estimated that somewhere between 61,000 and 173,000 sea turtles—of all ages—were killed during the disaster. For the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, this equals 10-20 percent of the average number of nesting females each year, which would have laid approximately 65,000 – 95,000 additional hatchlings.

16. Deep Seafloor

The footprint of BP oil on the Gulf seafloor around the wellhead is an area more than 20 times the size of Manhattan (over 770 square miles). An additional 3,300 square miles may have been affected.

Click here to view the PDF of the graphics and impacts data.

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Oysters 101

August 5, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in Science, Seafood, Wildlife

By Shannon Hood, Environmental Defense Fund

Today is National Oyster Day, and we’re celebrating the holiday with a post about these useful and tasty bivalves and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory, which is growing them by the billions.

Previous posts have discussed the ecological and economic importance of oysters, so we won’t spend time on this today. In preparation for a series of other posts on the (r)evolutionary oyster industry, this post will explain their life history and introduce some of the research being conducted to ensure their continued success.

Oysters grow in large colonies that make up reefs. Mature oysters begin to spawn when the water temperature reaches 74-86 degrees Fahrenheit. When the first male or female spawns, others sense it as they filter the water, thus triggering more to spawn.

Oyster Fig1

Intertidal oyster reef

Oyster Fig2

Mature oysters spawning. Males and females can be differentiated based on the way they spawn.

The sperm and eggs join in the water column. The newly formed larvae will swim and feed for approximately two weeks until they reach what’s known as the pediveliger stage and are ready to attach to a substrate, a process known as “setting.” When an oyster sets, it secretes a glue-like substance and will not move from this location for the duration of its life. At this point, the oyster is known as a spat.

Oyster Fig3

Oyster spat on their host shell. These oysters will spend the duration of their lives on this host shell.

In the lab, this process is much the same as in the wild, however, it takes place in a controlled environment. In this environment, staff are able to control variables such as temperature, salinity and food availability – variables which have tremendous effects on oyster spawning and survival rates.

Oyster Fig4

Oyster life cycle

Aside from their work in growing oysters, the UMCES Horn Point Hatchery is a hotspot for research on all things oyster, including numerous graduate student researchers looking into how salinity affects setting and growth throughout oysters’ lives. Having a good understanding of optimal salinities and answering these questions, we remove yet another unknown in this industry, allowing greater understanding for how to ensure oysters are able to thrive now and into the future.

Oyster Fig5

UMCES graduate student examines larvae in preparation for experiment

Oyster populations and harvests are on the rise in the Chesapeake Bay for the first time in decades. In 2004, just 26,000 bushels were harvested from Maryland’s waters. In 2014, Chesapeake Bay harvesters reported their best year in three decades, bringing in 900,000 bushels from traditional on-bottom leases.

What’s the cause of this rebounding industry? It’s no miracle cure, but rather a host of federal and state management practices, a booming aquaculture industry, successful hatcheries that provide a reliable source of larvae and new science that is allowing these bivalves to thrive once again.

Oyster Fig6

An oyster aquaculture farm in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. Photo courtesy of True Chesapeake Oyster Company.

What does this mean for Louisiana? Our coastal waters boast some of the best conditions for oyster growth in the nation. Using funds from the Natural Resources Damages Assessment (NRDA) Early Restoration Program, LSU Sea Grant is operating a new, state of the art hatchery on Grand Isle, a hatchery capable of producing up to one billion oyster larvae per year. This increased capacity can add significantly to the production potential of the state’s public and private oyster grounds. Additionally, off-bottom aquaculture and remote setting are looking more and more like realistic options to increase the industry’s success. Stay tuned for future posts about each of these new tools in the oyster industry’s toolbox.

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Afternoon on the Bayou, Seeing Restoration Firsthand

June 26, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in Wildlife

By Matthew Phillips, Outreach Assistant, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition, National Wildlife Federation

Last Thursday, the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition team traveled south to Plaquemines Parish to tour some of Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands. Andy Buchsbaum, National Wildlife Federation’s Vice President of Conservation Action, was in town to see our work firsthand. We packed the cars and drove to Buras, La to meet Ryan Lambert, owner of Cajun Fishing Adventures. We piled into two bay boats and set off through the marshes of Fort St. Philip. He explained how this natural opening on the east side of the Mississippi River was loading sediment into the marshes, building ground for plants to grow on. He has seen how rich and diverse the vegetation has become, and how wildlife has returned in droves in the last few years.


The team sets out for our tour through the marshes near Buras, LA. Credit: kdwNWF


The new sediment is rich in nutrients, allowing small trees to grow. Trees provide habitat for birds and help stabilize the soil at the bottom of the wetland. Credit:kdwNWF


Ryan Lambert, of Cajun Fishing Adventures, navigates through the submerged aquatic vegetation, explaining its importance as habitat for small fish and insects. Credit:kdwNWF


NWF Staff Scientist Alisha Renfro and Senior Coastal Louisiana Restoration Program Manager Maura Wood discuss a sample of sediment. The sediment in this shallow, open-water area was mostly mud, the same sediment found in nearby marsh soils. Credit:kdwNWF













At the end of the day the team gathered at Woodland Plantation for happy hour and an amazing meal. Everyone agreed that seeing the coast we are fighting to restore is a crucial part of our work. Our supporters in Plaquemines Parish, ground zero for Louisiana Coastal Restoration, are some of the most fervent advocates of restoration. Having passionate people explaining what the coast means to them while immersed in the environment they love was invigorating. We returned to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Washington, D.C., with a renewed sense of commitment to the Louisiana coast.

last photo


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Audubon Louisiana training volunteers for Coastal Stewardship Program

June 10, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in Birds, Wildlife

By Ashley Peters, Communications Associate, National Audubon Society

May 16 2015_Volunteer Training_GI_A Peters 2

Volunteers gather in Grand Isle to learn about issues facing Louisiana’s beach-nesting birds.

In May, a group of more than 30 volunteers gathered at the Grand Isle Community Center to learn about issues facing Louisiana’s beach-nesting birds and how people can help. Cute, fuzzy chicks of birds such as Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers need our help during each spring and summer to protect them from human disturbance and other threats.

“There are many ways birds and people can share the beach, it’s just a matter of awareness,” says Erik Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s Director of Bird Conservation. “We need help informing beach-goers about what beach-nesting birds need to successfully raise their little ones. These threatened birds need safe, open, sandy areas and we hope folks will respect the birds by keeping their distance.”

The volunteer training included information on how to identify shorebirds, how to interpret bird behavior, and ways to help beach-nesting birds succeed. The training was followed by a crawfish boil celebration to show appreciation for new and current volunteers, as well as program partners.

Least Tern - Crane Beach, MA - 2003 Jul 4

Least Tern – Crane Beach, MA

Least Tern and Wilson’s Plover chicks are camouflaged to avoid predation and nests are also hard to see because the birds lay their eggs in shallow depressions, or “scrapes,” in the sand. Audubon Louisiana marks sensitive beach areas with signs and symbolic fencing to prevent people from accidentally entering nesting sites. This reduces the chances of eggs and chicks being inadvertently trampled, run over, or harmed in other ways if parent birds are flushed (or chased away) from nests.

In addition to ensuring there is suitable habitat for birds through the implementation of Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and other initiatives, Audubon organizes the Coastal Bird Stewardship Program as well as the Coastal Bird Survey to monitor and encourage birds to successfully live and breed on beaches.

Next time you’re on the beach, remember the following:

  • Keep your distance: Sensitive nesting areas are posted with signs. When an adult bird is flushed or chased away, chicks and eggs are vulnerable to predators and overheating.
  • Keep pets leashed: Nesting birds are very sensitive – even good pets are perceived as predators and will disturb nesting activities.
  • Take your trash with you and dispose of fishing line properly: Birds can become easily entangled in loose line, plastic bags, and other unsightly garbage.
  • Please do not feed the wildlife: This will attract predators, like gulls, crows, and other animals that will eat bird eggs and chicks.
  • Get involved: Volunteer stewards help teach beachgoers how to help protect these vulnerable birds. Join our mailing list to receive updates, news, and notifications about volunteer opportunities.

To learn more about how you can help birds, visit or email To learn more about Audubon’s Coastal Stewardship Programs, watch this video:

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8th Graders Present Project to Louisiana House on Coastal Restoration

April 30, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), Wildlife

By Eden Davis, Outreach Coordinator, Louisiana Wildlife Federation

This was originally posted on the LA Camo Coalition blog.

On April 29, a group of 8th graders from Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse presented to the Louisiana House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment about the importance of coastal restoration.

Eden blog photo 1

The Committee diligently listened as the 8th graders used Cat Island as a call to action on the urgency for restoring our coast. Cat Island, located in Plaquemines Parish, has all but disappeared, going from a pre-BP 5 acres to  now mere tenths of an acre.

The 8th graders have spearheaded a campaign called the Pelican Cat-astrophe. Their focus is on restoring Cat Island due to the island serving as critical pelican habitat and also as the first line of defense for coastal communities against storm surge. Cat Island has historically been one of the greatest nesting locations for the Louisiana state bird, the brown pelican. Until 2009, the brown pelican was on the endangered species list.

Eden blog photo 2

Cat Island.

These students are quite persuasive; after presenting to the Plaquemines Parish Council, the Council approved 1.2 million in spending to restore Cat Island. After the 8th graders spoke, Chip Kline from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, confirmed the state's plans to restore Cat Island.  Kline said that the exact amount of funding is contingent on what damage to Cat Island the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) determines is the fault of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Go the Pelican Cat-astrophe website, here!



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5 Years After BP Oil Spill, Audubon Stewards the Gulf

April 16, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Wildlife

In the wake of the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history, Audubon is working to protect bird populations and restore critical habitat across all five Gulf states.

By Chris Canfield, Vice President, National Audubon Society, Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway

This post has been cross-posted from an article originally published on the National Audubon Society’s website.

This Monday marks five years since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, claiming 11 lives and unleashing the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history. In that time, the National Audubon Society has built on its 100-year legacy of protecting bird populations throughout the Gulf Coast and has extended its footprint of stewardship across all five states.

The Gulf Coast is an important breeding ground and migratory rest stop for many coastal birds, including Brown Pelicans, Least Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, Sanderlings and other vulnerable species. BP oil reached the coastal habitats – on which these birds rely during shorebird migration – at the height of nesting season for breeding waterbirds, resulting in the death of an estimated 1 million birds.

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, Audubon staff and hundreds of volunteers were on the ground, facilitating transport of oiled birds for cleaning and care, protecting critical habitat and nesting grounds and being the voice for birds throughout the disaster. In the years that followed, Audubon engaged its network of volunteers to help pass the historic RESTORE Act—ensuring that a majority of funds from the Clean Water Act fines BP pays will be allocated towards restoration efforts. In order to understand the immediate and long-term effects on birds, Audubon scientists also developed the Audubon Coastal Bird Survey, a citizen-scientist effort to monitor the health of coastal populations and to provide a better accounting of these populations going forward. The program has been expanded to all five Gulf states.

Five years have come and gone since the oil spill, and as the ongoing effects continue to be felt, the National Audubon Society is focused on ramping up its important stewardship for birds at more than 200 sites across the Gulf Coast. We empower citizens and communities to protect terns and skimmers in nesting colonies, protect the access of plover chicks to their feeding grounds, and oversee critical waterbird colonies from Florida to Texas. We still await assessment of full fines to BP and others involved with the catastrophic spill, but we have been successful putting available funds to work on expanded coastal bird protections.

To all of our volunteers, supporters and friends who have been there for the Gulf and its bird populations, thank you for helping us make significant progress in confronting this terrible disaster. We have a long way to go before meaningful restoration is achieved, so please stay engaged and stay committed. In the meantime, I encourage you to share this video to inform others about the important work Audubon is doing throughout the Gulf Coast and sign this petition asking BP to stop its campaign of misinformation and pay for the damage done.

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BP's Sleight of Hand

April 8, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Reports, Science, Wildlife

Cat Island 2010 and 2015_NWF photo

This post has been cross-posted from an article originally published on the National Audubon Society’s website

By: Melanie Driscoll, Director of Bird Conservation, Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway, Erik Johnson, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Louisiana

A BP-authored report claiming that the Gulf has recovered is inaccurate and insulting—here’s why.

Nearly five years after the largest accidental marine oil spill in U.S. history, BP is doing its best to convince the public that the 4.9[1] million barrels of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico have done no lasting damage. That’s the message found in The Gulf of Mexico Environmental Recovery and Restoration report the company released three weeks ago.

Based on what the report does present, it’s obvious that BP chose to ignore recent research that shows the ongoing impact of the oil spill, particularly on birds (pp 15-17 of report). That BP ignores peer-reviewed science is nothing new—they have been denying culpability and the validity of peer-reviewed, published research since the spill itself. Meanwhile, their own conclusions lack peer-review and they have not released their methodology. Because of this lack of transparency, BP has made claims that are impossible to refute or verify.

One of the government agencies responsible for monitoring the Gulf health following the oil spill—the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program—is expected to hold itself to a high standard of independent scientific peer-review as it completes its Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). While we await the NRDA studies to be completed and released, BP has flaunted such professional standards in its allusions to NRDA findings that cannot be verified at this stage. The trustees of NRDA themselves called BP’s recent report “inappropriate as well as premature.”

Along with others in the scientific community, the National Audubon Society rejects BP’s claims. While their report leaves much to criticize, here are its five main flaws:

  • Their conclusions are not credible given lack of peer-review, questionable methodology and premature conclusions.

They claim “search teams likely found 97 percent of large birds and 78 percent of small birds.” These numbers are inconceivable to any researcher or birder who has looked for birds on a beach. It stands to reason that a detection rate of 97 percent as claimed by BP is unlikely, even for living and mobile birds; their estimate seems grossly optimistic compared to detection rates published widely in the scientific literature. In addition, BP compared their estimate of searcher efficiency for carcasses placed on beaches to the searcher efficiency across sandy beach, rocky beach, and marsh habitats. Detection rates are known to vary widely based on factors such as carcass coloration and habitat, and the actual searches in the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred across marsh, mangrove, rocky beach, and sandy beach habitats.  Attacking a single parameter from a complex study, and doing so using an apples-to-oranges comparison, is disingenuous and misleading.

  • The Gulf of Mexico ecosystem has not returned to a pre-oil spill “baseline condition”.

First of all, the oil is not gone. Significant deposits (up to 230,000 barrels) of oil have been discovered in the sediment on the Gulf floor. This oil regularly washes ashore during storms, re-oiling marshes and beaches. In October 2014, researchers discovered a 1,250-square-mile “bathtub ring” of oil on the Gulf floor–equivalent to the size of Rhode Island. Indeed, as the BP report was released a 22,000-pound tar mat was being removed from East Grand Terre Island in Barataria Bay, LA.

BP’s conclusions are incredibly premature. With lagged effects, trophic cascades, food web effects, and repeated re-oiling of the coast, we could be seeing surprises and environmental effects for years to come on birds and on the entire ecosystem.

Erosion is forever. Land and crucial habitats have disappeared. It’s impossible to return to a “baseline” when the land that composed that baseline and is crucial to coastal bird populations has disappeared. Studies show that marsh that was heavily oiled was undercut and eroded back, creating ragged marsh edges that were unoiled or lightly oiled. The scientists have then seen a wave of erosion of these unoiled or lightly oiled marsh, as waves reshape the ragged marsh edge to create a new, smoother edge. Not only has much of the heavily oiled marsh eroded, but marsh that was less damaged has followed.

  • Damage to birds from the BP oil spill is evident and has been well documented, contrary to what BP reports.  

In the 95 days following the oil spill, conservative estimates are that hundreds of thousands to more than a million birds died.

This acute damage does not take into account the molecular, cellular, reproductive, and developmental damage that may accumulate in birds for years to come. That is significant, it is long-term, and it matters.

Birds exposed to oil during their early development may accumulate damage that causes failed reproduction. Additionally, many long-lived species like pelicans, terns, and egrets do not breed until their second, third, or fourth year of life, meaning the young exposed to oil early in their lives hadn’t started breeding in 2011, making BP’s conclusions based on 2011 information premature.

  • More studies are needed to understand the ongoing and long-term effects on bird populations.

In other species, lagged and trophic level effects have resulted in increasing effects from oil being detected over time since the disaster. Very few studies on bird productivity have been published that looked beyond the 2010-2011 nesting season. More studies are needed to draw broad conclusions.

Scientifically, the most reliable way to study productivity is to compare productivity of birds exposed to oil and not exposed to oil within the same season. The only study of which we are aware that has used this reliable methodology is a study of the Seaside Sparrow, which showed reduced nest success for sparrows on oiled sites in 2012 and 2013.

  • BP’s use of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data is flawed and their summaries of other data are incomplete and misleading.

BP misused CBC data to obscure potential impacts. It’s likely they used data from well outside the impacted areas. Particularly, Sandwich Terns and Northern Gannets are not counted by CBC participants 10-100 times more than Piping Plovers in the impacted areas. The numbers they used for Red Knots appear to include the entire rufa subspecies, which mainly winters in the Tierra del Fuego region in southern Argentina and the Maranhão region of northeastern Brazil. It is difficult to tell how CBC data were used, but it is clear from the relative abundance of some species that data from outside the Gulf were included in analyses. Using broader data from other regions could mask any local and regional changes in populations due to the oil spill. Without describing their methods, it is apparent that BP’s report represents a misuse of Audubon’s publicly available data.

BP reported oiling rates from long after the oil well was capped, resulting in oiling rates that appear to be very low: In its report, BP cites data saying “researchers saw no visible oil in 99 percent of the roughly 500,000 live bird observations from May 2010 to March 2011.” A study following the Deepwater Horizon spill showed that 8.6 percent of captured shorebirds showed evidence of oiling, indicating that BP’s observational evidence may have underestimated exposure by as much as an order of magnitude.

BP selected a study that appeared to show no effects on birds to highlight a success that is likely just a lack of use of the oiled region:  In BP’s reference to the Northern Gannet publication, researchers in this paper used light-level geolocators to determine wintering locations of Northern Gannets. Digging into the details of the paper, it is clear that only a small sample of the researcher’s birds wintered in the Gulf of Mexico (8 birds in their study) and that the Gulf birds foraged in areas primarily >100 miles away from the spill site, i.e., well outside of area of the most devastating impacts. Thus it may be no surprise that these few birds did not show elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (harmful chemicals from oil) levels as they were not in the spill zone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s published account of bird deaths following the spill paints a different picture—Northern Gannets were one of the most frequently encountered dead bird after the spill.

BP incorrectly concluded from a published study that researchers did not find evidence that variations in age classes of Brown Pelicans on Louisiana barrier islands were related to the oil spill. However, the paper specifically states “…additional research is required to evaluate potential long-term population trends.” Also, “Care should be taken in interpretation of our result as a lack of effect [of oil] on demography because there are combinations of spill-related reductions in fecundity and age-specific mortality that could result in no changes in age structure.” One scenario that’s easy to imagine is that all age classes were reduced similarly. In short, like the authors state, there are many possible scenarios that could influence their findings.

Despite BP’s claims, we may not know the full impact of the oil spill for decades to come. Even more, we will not achieve lasting, meaningful restoration in the Gulf Coast until BP quits stalling, quits the legal and publicity campaign and actually funds full restoration.

Sign this petition telling BP to stop their delay tactics and fully fund Gulf restoration.

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