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Gulf Oil Spill Q&A

Questions and answers from the experts about Gulf Coast habitat and the oil spill
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Q. What's the latest on the oil gushing into the Gulf?

The oil spill now covers a very large area of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Oil has moved into the coastal marshes of Louisiana, and tar balls and oil sheen have made landfall on beaches in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The Coast Guard estimates as much as 25,000 barrels of oil per day are leaking from the well. However, BP is now capturing more than 14,000 barrels through their current containment system (as of June 8). That amount will continue to be maximized in coming days. Bringing in a second ship and optimizing flow through the cap – a process being taken slowly and carefully to avoid the hydrate crystal issues experienced with the first cap attempt – will allow BP to capture 20,000 barrels per day. According to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, BP would then proceed with longer-term plans that would allow the company to continue collecting crude even in bad weather. Those plans include the creation of a second, redundant collection system.

Q. What dangers does the spill pose to waterfowl habitat?

The spill, while potentially devastating to many marine and wetland wildlife species and populations, will likely exacerbate the already staggering rates of marsh loss. As the oil comes onshore into the marshes, it may coat and kill the vegetation. Plants and their root systems hold the soils together – loss of root systems causes the soils to become exposed and subject to erosion, thereby increasing the rate of land (in this case wetlands) loss. What's important are not only the coastal marsh ponds and bays used by waterfowl, but the marshy lands surrounding them that are the foundation of the waterfowl habitat base. This is very important wintering duck habitat and one of DU's top five international conservation priorities.

Ducks Unlimited has been concerned about the Gulf Coast, particularly its coastal wetlands, for a long time. This region has been in an ongoing ecological crisis, losing about 20,000 wetland acres a year for more than 30 years now. If oil has destroyed or degraded important food sources for wintering waterfowl and leaves them in poor body condition, they may face a very difficult winter and reduced breeding success next spring.

Q. Which species of wintering ducks are at risk from this spill?

Upwards of 13 million waterfowl may winter along the Gulf Coast in some years. As many as 4.7 million waterfowl winter in southeast Louisiana, 4.5 million in southwest Louisiana, about 20,000 each in the Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay, and then perhaps 100,000-250,000 in coastal Florida wetlands and bays.

From a waterfowl perspective, it's fortunate this didn't occur later in the year, because of the number of birds that are attracted to the area in winter. We have specific concerns about the lesser scaup (bluebills) and redheads that winter just offshore of Louisiana from the Chandeleur Islands to the mouth of the river, west to Vermilion Bay - between 250,000 and 1.4 million scaup may winter in that area. Also, there are about 10,000 redheads that winter on the shoal grass flats associated with the Chandeleur Islands and an average of 80,000 redheads in the offshore areas of Florida's Big Bend region, and another 100,000 or so lesser scaup in Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. Likewise, canvasbacks, for instance, spend the winter in wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi, directly in the path of the oil. If oil is still present this November when those birds arrive, there is high risk of substantial oiling and death. If oil kills their foods (small clams for scaup, marine grasses for redheads), they will be forced to migrate elsewhere with impacts to survival not known nor easily determined.

In the interior marshes of Louisiana, gadwalls are the most abundant birds. Also, green-winged teal and blue-winged teal are fairly abundant, and lots of pintails pass the winter south of Venice, La., which is where the oil has affected some marsh areas and offshore areas where birds roost and loaf. American wigeon are also fairly common down in that part of Louisiana, and during some years, so are mallards.

Q. Which resident ducks are threatened?

Mottled ducks would be at risk if oil comes into the fresh and brackish marshes. Adult males and unsuccessful nesting females will begin the flightless wing molt period soon (mid-June) and continue through August, while adult females successfully raising broods will molt in July and August. During the molt, the ducks will be unable to fly to areas free of oil if their habitats are impacted. For this to occur, the oil would have to get into interior freshwater and intermediate salinity marshes. As of June 10, the mottled ducks have “dodged that bullet,” and no oil has reached fresh or intermediate marsh.

Q. The marshes aren't just important to waterfowl. What other effects could the spill have?

About 20 percent of the nation's commercial seafood originates in coastal Louisiana. These include brown shrimp, blue crab, oysters and various fish. Also vulnerable is the region's vast recreational fishery, including species such as speckled trout and redfish. This is perhaps the most serious and imminent issue that is affecting not only fish, but so many people's livelihoods across the Gulf Coast - from Florida to Louisiana. It affects commercial shrimpers, oystermen, fishermen, and the huge recreational charter fishing industry. Our hearts go out to those affected and to everyone in the related tourism and supporting industries.

Also, there is an astounding diversity and abundance of shorebirds and wading birds that are resident in, migrate through, or winter in the region. It is among the most important areas for these birds in North America.

Q. Which wildlife and fisheries habitats are most threatened?

Various habitats are threatened. You have to make assumptions where the oil would go; the threats vary as you do. Marine fisheries, dolphins, sea turtles and other wildlife that inhabit the open waters of the Gulf have already been impacted. Unknown effects of chemical dispersants and oil within marine ecosystems are already taking place, and will likely continue for years to come. If the oil goes into the salt or brackish marshes, that's where young redfish stay until they mature. Speckled trout do the same thing. So it's a nursery for pre-adult fish. If these habitats are lost and not quickly restored, these nurseries would be at risk. These wetlands are also critical for juvenile shrimp and crabs, oysters, etc. If it gets into intermediate and fresh water marshes, waterfowl, alligators and many other species will be in danger.

All of these wildlife species are tied to million-dollar industries along the Gulf Coast - from recreational fishermen to commercial shrimpers and oystermen to waterfowl hunting guides to bird watching sites to the alligator industry. Even basic tourism and its associated support industries – restaurants, shopping centers, etc. – all depend on a clean environment with healthy and diverse wildlife populations.

It's hard to overstate how important coastal wetlands across the affected region are to fish and wildlife.

Q. How is Ducks Unlimited reacting to the spill?

  • To better coordinate Ducks Unlimited's response to the growing problem of the Gulf Coast oil spill and its impact on wetlands, waterfowl and other wildlife, CEO Dale Hall has named a team of DU's professional staff to provide the organization with day-to-day guidance on all matters related to our work on the Gulf Coast oil spill. Dr. Tom Moorman, our chief scientist and director of conservation planning for the Southern Region, will lead the 16-member Gulf Coast Response Team.
  • CEO Dale Hall, Dr. Tom Moorman, Chief Biologist Dale Humburg and 10 other DU staff and volunteers traveled to Venice, La., on June 3-4 to inspect wetland damage and meet with officials from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
  • DU has posted oil spill related video updates and other information on its website. (http://www.ducks.org/conservation/oilspill/)
  • On May 27, the Ducks Unlimited Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution on the Gulf Coast oil spill to express concern for affected people and wildlife.
  • DU issued an e-blast Action Alert asking its members to contact their congressional representatives in support of an effort to increase funding to assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and state wildlife agencies with their response and recovery efforts. Importantly, BP will ultimately be responsible for cleanup costs and will reimburse the government for these expenses.
  • DU and 22 other organizations have signed a letter addressed to House Appropriations Chairman David Obey and Ranking Member Jerry Lewis supporting this effort to increase congressional funding related to the oil spill.
  • CEO Dale Hall has sent letters to the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida expressing DU's regrets for the impacts this tragedy will have on the region's people, economy and culture and offering our full support and assistance.
  • DU has contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state and federal agencies and offered our support and assistance.
  • DU has reached out to BP and other companies that are active in the Gulf and indicated we are available to assist on research, monitoring of bird resources and wetlands conservation and restoration.
  • As the world's leader in wetlands conservation, Ducks Unlimited is keeping a close eye on how the oil spill will ultimately affect the Gulf Coast's fragile coastal ecosystem. DU has been working to restore coastal wetlands for more than 20 years and will continue wetlands restoration in response to oil impacts and as part of long-term waterfowl habitat conservation.

We have, since long before the spill, been trying to bring the issue of loss of Louisiana's coastal wetlands to national attention – it was a crisis before the spill and it is now even more so – so we are ramping up our ongoing communications efforts in response to the spill and we will remain engaged in restoration issues along the Louisiana coast for years to come so that waterfowl and other fish and wildlife have habitat, and hunters and others who enjoy the marsh have places to continue to go.

We continue to work with a host of conservation partners, including the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration on various marsh and waterfowl habitat restoration efforts. By the end of June (our current fiscal year) we will have worked on more than 100,000 acres of Louisiana coastal wetlands for waterfowl and waterfowl hunters.

We are very concerned about oil impacts on Pass-a-Loutre WMA and Delta NWR. We know that oil has hit the perimeter vegetation, but has not yet entered the shallow ponds (June 10). We are watching that situation closely as we know it has potential to affect not only tens of thousands of birds, but also many, many hunters in the area.

We are working on additional efforts to get the word out about this catastrophe. Various communications efforts including videos, press releases and media contacts will spread the word about the great risk this spill presents to an already threatened wetland system that has lost more than 1 million acres of habitat.

Q. What can DU and other groups do to alleviate some of this impact?

We simply have to ramp up and restore as much of the wetlands as we can and continue to advocate for changes in public policies regarding how the Mississippi River is managed. The Mississippi needs to be more broadly diverted in a managed way to infuse freshwater and sediment into the marsh, which will help restore the wetlands. The Corps of Engineers will have the primary role to play in diversions to restore coastal marsh. DU, along with a host of partners, has long advocated for this long-term solution.

Q. As a DU member, I want to assist in the volunteer efforts in the Gulf Coast. Has DU made any attempts to organize a DU volunteer movement?

Right now, state and federal agencies are in the midst of Natural Resource Damage Assessment – it is a technical process with many legal implications, and there is not currently a role for DU. Also, during this phase of the spill response, BP and federal agencies must manage all containment and cleanup efforts. If DU members want to volunteer, we encourage going to the DU website at www.ducks.org and clicking on the links to agencies that are seeking volunteer help. DU anticipates a role in habitat restoration solutions in the near future, and at that time we may call upon volunteers for support.

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