Oil Spill Threatens Wildlife in the Galveston Bay

Photo by Chase A. Fountain, courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Photo by Chase A. Fountain, courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Well, it looks like there has been yet another fossil fuel accident. Over the weekend, 168,000 gallons of toxic oil spilled into the Galveston Bay. A Kirby Inland Marine oil barge collided with a cargo ship, shutting down The Houston Ship Channel, and spilling as much as 4,000 barrels of fuel oil. In a story that is becoming all too common, the waterways are still closed and clean up efforts are underway to try to minimize the devastating impact.

The Threat to Wildlife

Near the crash site is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, which is home to hundreds of species of birds. The area sees anywhere from 50–70,000 birds annually, who are attracted to the shallow mud flats.  Birds such as ruddy turnstones, laughing gulls and American white pelicans, and some shore birds have been found oiled. So far, more than 50 oiled birds have been found in the sanctuary.

Unfortunately, high winds meant that containing the spill was never an option and the oil has spread into the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern shoreline of Galveston Island. There have been reports of oiled birds on nearby beaches such as Eagle Point. “Triage trailers” have been set up to help treat impacted animals and birds and other wildlife species are being transported to neighboring animal rehab centers to help them get clean and healthy. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, there could be hundreds, if not thousands, of birds impacted by this oil accident.

Check out this video that shows just how bad things are in the bay:

Ryan Fikes, Gulf Restoration Scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, explains why this oil spill is so harmful to bird species:

This spill could not have happened at a worse time for migrating birds, which arrive in the area this time of year in large numbers. This type of sticky, heavy fuel poses a particular risk for migrating birds and marine animals that surface for air such as sea turtles and dolphins.

As the migratory birds arrive in the Galveston Bay, they are met with a toxic and life threatening oil spill. In fact, many of these birds are migrating from Canada where they are feeling the negative impacts of tar sands extraction. From start to finish, migratory birds are facing a fossil fuel threat throughout their whole journey.

The oil spilled into Galveston Bay won’t be fully cleaned up: it never is in spills, and this one will be no different. Historically, only about 10% of the oil from open water spills is recovered. Unknown long term impacts will continue to plague wildlife and communities for decades to come.

The Long View

The American White Pelican is one of the species impacted by the spill. Flickr photo by Mike Baird.
The American White Pelican is one of the species impacted by the spill. Flickr photo by Mike Baird.
This oil spill happened, ironically, just before the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, where nearly 11 million gallons of oil spilled into the Prince William Sound, in one of the worst environmental disasters in history. It is possible to find oil on the shores of Prince William Sound today that is nearly as toxic as it was a quarter-century ago. Sea otter populations just now recently returned to pre-spill levels, but orcas, herring and many other species still have a long road to recovery.

It takes time to understand a spill’s full impacts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just announced that crude oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster causes severe defects in the developing hearts of tuna. It is thought that the toxic compounds in oil have similar impacts on other fish as well, such as the Pacific herring, which has not yet recovered from the Exxon-Valdez spill.

We cannot guess what the long-term impacts of this smaller, yet still serious, accident will be. We do know that fish such as the economically important black drum are currently spawning in estuaries like Galveston Bay, in the nearshore waters of the Gulf, and in passes like the Texas Ship Channel that connect Galveston Bay to the Gulf.

We must take every opportunity to invest in the long-term health of the Gulf of Mexico and its wildlife habitats, so that when new oil incidents occur, the Gulf is in a better position to withstand them.

This latest spill has happened as Gulf states and federal entities are working through a process to restore the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Yet even in the face of this new disaster, leaders are publically discussing using RESTORE Act funds for projects that will not only not provide any benefit to the Gulf ecosystem, but could actually further degrade its health.

Take Action Button

Urge the secretary of commerce to make sure BP’s oil spill fines are used to restore habitats for wildlife.

This piece has been updated with additional information about the negative impacts of oil spills. Lacey McCormick also contributed to this post.