Galveston Bay spill leaves hundreds of birds oiled

By: Matt McGovern Email
By: Matt McGovern Email
Wildlife officials have reported hundreds of dead and dying birds covered in oil as cleanup efforts continue in the aftermath of a fuel oil spill late last month in Galveston Bay.

Galveston Bay near the Texas City Dyke and the Valero Refinery in Texas City, March 26th, 2014.

TEXAS CITY, TX (Texas Tribune) - Coast Guard crews and wildlife advocates have recovered or spotted hundreds of shorebirds covered in oil in the aftermath of a collision late last month between two ships in Galveston Bay that resulted in a spill of up to 168,000 gallons of fuel oil. Many are dead, those still alive have little hope for survival, and officials say they expect to find more. 

While the Houston Ship Channel is open and fishermen have mostly resumed activities in the bay, officials say they are at least several weeks away from fully containing the fuel oil, and its devastating effects on shorebirds are becoming increasingly apparent. The effects of the spill, Newstead said, are particularly troubling in the ecologically sensitive area in which the birds have already been in peril from human activity.  

Newstead and Coast Guard officials said birds affected by the spill include ducks, herrings, herons, brown and white pelicans, sanderlings, loons, willets, black-bellied plover and the piping plover, which is classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. 

As of Thursday, the Coast Guard said it had recovered 329 oiled birds from Galveston Bay to North Padre Island. Nearly all of them were dead. But Newstead said he has surveyed Mustang Island, about 200 miles southwest of the initial spill site, and observed at least 500 more birds with some traces of oil. The soiled birds came into contact with the contaminated water as it washed ashore. 

Even though they’re still flying around for now, Newstead said, they’ll end up ingesting the oil by preening, grooming themselves with their beaks. 

Birds that need to migrate soon are at a particular risk, he added. For instance, sanderlings, small, plump grey birds, spend winter months on sandy beaches but breed only in the Arctic Circle. To prepare for their migration back, they must put on a tremendous amount of weight. But oiled sanderlings, instead of feeding and gaining weight to prepare for the flight, will focus on preening. 

Since the March 22 collision in the Houston Ship Channel damaged an oil barge, the U.S. Coast Guard, in coordination with state wildlife officials, has conducted a massive cleanup effort on the Texas Gulf Coast.   

The focus now is cleaning the most affected areas, including reefs and lagoons on the northeast end of Galveston Island and Pelican Island, Coast Guard spokesman Andy Kendrick said. Some areas are moving on to “monitor and maintain mode,” which means the cleanup portion is done but requires routine maintenance checks. The goal is to mend the affected areas until they return to pre-spill conditions. 

Still, the damage to wildlife is done and will be difficult to fully assess, Coast Guard officials said. There are likely hundreds more birds that have not been identified that have been at least partially covered in oil and will not be recovered, they said. 

And the oil spill is only one challenge with which the birds must contend, Newstead said. Real estate expansion, climate changes and other human interferences have caused habitat loss, too.   

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

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