News Release
Southeast Region
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Hurricane Gustav Creates Numerous Small Oil Spills in the Gulf -- Response Team Works to Save Oiled Brown Pelicans


September 30, 2008


Tom MacKenzie, FWS, (678) 296-6400,


At least 33 oil spills ranging from simple sheens to 8,000 gallons plagued Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav. Most of the oil spills were sheens, not slicks, so were of minimal wildlife concern.

Although not as severe an impact as the eight million gallons spills resulting from the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, one Hurricane Gustav incident coated numerous brown pelicans.

This Breton Sound spill 25 miles northwest of Breton National Wildlife Refuge was only 20 barrels -- small in relation to most spills -- yet it oiled about 20 brown pelicans, 10 severely.

The U.S. Coast Guard called Environmental Contaminants Specialist Buddy Goatcher, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lafayette Ecological Services Office, for technical assistance late Friday, Sept. 5, 2008. Pelican rescue operations were planned for the next morning.

Goatcher contacted pilot Reggie Fontenot of Southern Helicopters to secure a Bell Long Ranger L3 helicopter, the tool of choice for low-level wildlife work. Fontenot, with more than 32 years flying experience, has worked with the Service on National Wildlife Refuge System prescribed fires and wildfires, and has worked with Goatcher on oil spills for at least ten of those years. Fortunately, the right helicopter and pilot were available, in spite of the great demand for helicopters by FEMA, and private needs following Gustav’s impact.

Goatcher and Fontenot have perfected a technique developed over the last decade of catching free-flying oiled birds by using the down draft under the helicopter to push oiled flying birds to the water surface and keep them on the surface. They “hold” the birds in this manner until the capture boats scoop them from the water with pole nets, something easier said than done.

“The big challenge is the helicopter rotor wash that pushes the netters and boats away from the birds,” said Goatcher. “It takes a coordinated effort of the helicopter pilot with his biologist spotter, the netters, and the skilled boat operators to choreograph the capture boat and helicopter maneuvers in winds, water currents, shallows, and unpredictable bird movements.”

The U.S. Coast Guard New Orleans Sector, bird rehab specialists from Wildlife Rehab and Education, Texas, and boat operators and deckhands from ES&H out of Houma, Louisiana composed the two bird-capture boat crews.

By the end of the day, the helicopter and boat crews operating as a unit located and captured 10 free-flying, oiled brown pelicans.

In the rehab center, located in Houma, Louisiana -- ground zero for the recent Hurricane Gustav -- the oiled rail died, as did one of the brown pelicans that was in a starved state (most likely a condition that preceded its oiling). One of the oiled pelicans that needed further rehab and rest was placed in a long-term care facility in Louisiana. All the other pelicans were cleaned and released into the Louisiana marsh the next day.


Dead oiled pelican. Photos by Buddy Goatcher, USFWS
Dead oiled pelican. Photo by Buddy Goatcher, USFWS

Oiled brown pelican in the Gulf. Photos by Buddy Goatcher, USFWS
Oiled brown pelican in the Gulf. Photo by Buddy Goatcher, USFWS


Damaged platform in the Gulf. Photo by Buddy Goatcher, USFWS
Damaged platform in the Gulf. Photo by Buddy Goatcher, USFWS
Videos were taken in the Gulf near Hopedale, Louisiana, following Hurricane Gustav. They show bird rescue personnel working to capture oiled pelicans so they can be cleaned and returned to the wild.
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2008 News Releases.

Last updated: September 30, 2008