Beast Corps: 594 birds, 250 sea turtles dead

By Beast Corps Jen Bullock
For nearly four weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, British Petroleum insisted to journalists and government representatives that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico was around 5,000 barrels a day. As scientists and academics began to run their own calculations, it became quickly obvious this number was a gross underestimate. Caving to mounting pressure for an honest assessment of the disaster, on May 20th BP announced the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf was three to five times greater than previously stated.

A similar narrative is now unfolding around BP’s tally of the wildlife death toll from the oil spill. BP’s record of animal deaths seemed suspiciously low to many wildlife organizations, given the unprecedented amount of oil flowing into the Gulf. Five weeks after the disaster BP maintained that 43 birds had been found dead or coated in oil, and disputed whether the dead dolphins and sea turtles encountered during the cleanup were related to the oil spill. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill, smaller in both geographical scale and magnitude of oil, killed 250,000 birds as well as thousands of other marine animals.

Wildlife organizations worry especially about a handful of endangered or nearly endangered species, such as the brown pelican, nearly extinct in the 1960’s and particularly vulnerable to oil, the 400 Florida manatees that migrate to Louisiana in the summer, and the nearly extinct Kemp’s Ridley turtles, reliant on the Gulf as its sole breeding ground. Also at risk is the Atlantic Bluefin tuna, a endangered deepwater fish which breeds near the source of the spill, and 28 species of dolphin and whale living in the Gulf, including a distinct population of 300 sperm whale known to gather around the edge of the Mississippi Canyon, near the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

As wildlife organizations began to scrutinize BP’s numbers, recent counts reflecting the impact on wildlife have risen sharply. The US Fish and Wildlife Service posts a daily online report based on information received from NOAA, rehabilitation centers, and organizations working with BP to handle the cleanup. As of June 7th, the organization reported the dead animal count at 594 birds, 250 sea turtles, and 30 mammals, in addition to 466 oil-slicked but alive birds, turtles, and mammals. These numbers are certain to rise, as the National Audubon Society notes on their website that the survival rate of oil-slicked birds can vary between 25-80%, depending on factors such as oil toxicity, bird species, and length of time the animal was in the oil.

Given the lack of transparency that BP has shown in the past, some are questioning why the corporation responsible for the spill is involved in the wildlife rescue at all. Kelly Overton, director of People Protecting Animals & Their Habitats (PATH Inc.), is one of those people. Overton has been questioning BP’s numbers from the beginning, telling media three weeks after the spill that he found it “impossible to believe that over a three week period, approximately 4 million gallons of oil has been pouring into the Gulf 45 miles away from one of the nation’s most treasured wildlife refuges, and affecting only 15 animals.” After learning of the spill, he flew down from New York and began running PATH’s operations out of Pensacola, attending community meetings, and raising awareness of the animal rescue efforts in the Gulf.

“We’ve never felt comfortable with the information we were getting from BP,” he says. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘Why is BP handling this cleanup? Why are they given free reign to handle animal rescue in the way they feel is most appropriate?”

PATH, which has animal rescue supply drop boxes around the country, wants to prepare the region for an animal rescue effort and raise awareness of the spill’s impact. “BP’s lack of transparency on every level has shown where their priorities lie – they want to keep a lid on the true scale of the disaster and help their image,” Overton says.

Overton recounts attending local meetings in Pensacola and asking BP representative Liz Castro about the animal deaths, only to be told she neither had those numbers nor could she get them. He thinks this lack of information is a deliberate BP strategy.

“We’re into the seventh week of this oil spill, and only recently have you begun to see widespread photos of affected marine life in the media.” Overton explains that this is largely due to BP’s wildlife rescue operations, which contract out to local wildlife organizations, such as the Autobahn Society and Tri-State Bird Rescue. “While these are competent organizations, BP is keeping media exposure to a minimum by forcing the organizations to sign non-disclosures, forbidding them from taking photos of the cleanup, and prohibiting them from speaking with the press.” Overton speculates that as the spill grows in size, damage control will be harder to do.

In response to BP’s reluctance to give estimates on the total damage being wreaked on the Gulf’s wildlife, PATH releases a daily “BP Dead Animal Count” on its twitter feed. The number is calculated using a conservative equation that factors the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf, the NOAA maps tracking the spread of the spill, and scientifically accepted rates of animal die-offs previously recorded in oil spills. As of June 7th, PATH’s estimate of total animals killed by the oil spill was 35,099.

Overton says calculating this number is important in providing people a sense of the truly devastating scale of the disaster. “People have a more emotional response to a picture of an oil-soaked pelican,” he concedes, “but there’s much more that’s being affected – shrimp, algae, seaweed, oyster beds, crabs.” These less-glamorous members of the animal kingdom form a complex foundation which the entire ecosystem depends on, says Overton, and they are particularly fragile to the toxicity of oil. “Our Dead Animal Count also reflects the thousands of animals that are dying offshore and sinking to the ocean floor, where no one’s around to take photos.”

Overton also worries about time wasted in the response effort. “We’ve had 45 days to mobilize volunteers and train people for a large scale animal rescue effort, but BP hasn’t done that.” His experience in Louisiana has made him skeptical of the animal response hotline phone number given out on BP’s website. “I’ve talked to people who’ve called that number and didn’t get a response for five hours,” he says. “ We need to be ready to respond the minute we hear of a problem.”

Overton wants a rescue solution independent of BP in all aspects save for funding. “BP can’t handle this because essentially it’s a conflict of interests,” he argues. “You can’t act in the best interest of a vulnerable population while trying to control information and downplay the severity of the spill.” Ultimately, Overton says, the Gulf coast wildlife will bear the brunt of this oil spill for years to come.

“This is an awful disaster, and it affects everyone. Animals, however, can’t protect themselves. They’re not able to sue BP. We’ve got to be proactive for them.”