|Amanda Hill, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, holds an oiled brown pelican rescued from the Gulf coast in June.|
|Credit: Kim Betton, USFWS|
Assessing Damage in the Gulf
From the south point of Texas to the southernmost tip of Florida, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are surveying natural resources along the Gulf Coast to develop a baseline and assess potential impacts of this year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“South Texas may seem pretty far from the spill,” says Mitch Sternberg, lead biologist for the South Texas Refuge Complex, encompassing Santa Ana, Laguna Atascosa and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuges, “but we still need to document what we have as we continue to learn how the oil is migrating.”
Sternberg is one of hundreds of biologists surveying birds and wildlife habitat for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) response to the Deepwater Horizon Spill. While birds are the Service’s primary focus, biologists are also documenting other coastline phenomena that might have been impacted by the oil spill. Other federal and state agencies are conducting similar surveys for other resources, including sea turtles, marine mammals, vegetation, soils and water. Every NRDAR team has two biologists – one representing the Service, and another representing BP, operator of the burst well. “There is a protocol that everyone follows,” says Sternberg. “This way we know the science is consistent.”
Selected areas, or transects, are surveyed at least 10 times at three-day intervals. During the survey, a NRDAR team walks the designated transect, recording birds and other information to establish a baseline. “We are recording every bird we see, including commonly seen species, those that might have been oiled by the spill or dead birds,” says Sternberg. “Obviously, birds die of natural causes, and these surveys help determine what is normal and what was because of the spill.” Dead birds are collected and necropsied to determine cause of death.
Even before oil from the damaged Deepwater Horizon well reached the shoreline, NRDAR teams began surveying natural resources in Gulf Coast states, under the supervision of the Service’s Washington and regional offices. As of early August, 17 NRDAR teams had sampled a quarter to a half of their shorelines. The process is expected to continue at least through year’s end.
The NRDAR process being used in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon incident was authorized under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The process establishes the damage to natural resources from an environmental mishap so the responsible party can pay to restore the impacted area to pre-mishap conditions.“It’s an important undertaking by the government to document natural resources before oil reaches our shores,” says Sternberg. “The information is not only helpful for this spill but will be useful for any future environmental impacts we might have.”