A bird oiled by the Galveston spill. Photo: © Chase A. Fountain, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
On March 22, the country’s collective focus was once again on the Gulf of Mexico. Four years after the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a tanker collided with a ship to send roughly 168,000 gallons of fuel oil pouring into Galveston Bay. It didn’t take long for Texans to connect the Galveston spill to two grim anniversaries—it happened 25 years after the historic Exxon Valdez spill and just a few weeks shy of the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which claimed 11 lives and sent more than 200 million gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf.
At every level, the response in Galveston was swift–the damaged tanker was quickly sealed and towed away, authorities halted all traffic in and out of the Houston Ship Channel, and the nearby community of Texas City, Texas closed beachfront access to the public. When tar balls were reported on the beaches of Mustang Island, roughly 200 miles southwest of the spill site near Corpus Christi, Texas, the United States Coast Guard quickly dispatched clean-up crews. But even as we offer those first responders our gratitude, we know this situation couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
The season’s first significant waves of migrant shorebirds–species such as sandpipers, plovers, ducks and terns—are making their way north to the Texas coast to roost, rest and feed. This spill poses a huge risk to their habitat, as well as nesting areas for the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and sea life like plankton, shrimp and crabs. Those small sea creatures may not seem that vital, but they are the first link in a lengthy and complex food chain. They will undoubtedly ingest the oil, leading to varying levels of toxicity in the larger animals that feed on them.
Ten days after the spill, staff from The Nature Conservancy and the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Coastal Bird Program toured Mustang Island to see how shorebirds were faring. The results were disheartening: hundreds of birds were observed and more than half were oiled to some degree, with sanderlings, black bellied plovers, gulls and terns most affected. Only a small number of dead birds were found, but those smudged with oil aren’t necessarily safe. While the oil won’t hinder the birds physically, they will likely ingest the substance as they preen, which could lead to illness and possibly death. They could very well be this spill’s hidden mortality.
The repercussions of the Galveston spill will ripple throughout the bay and the entire Gulf–and that is something that will affect every one of us. The simple truth is that the Gulf of Mexico is one of the hardest working bodies of water in the world. It produces a huge majority of the seafood Americans eat and more than one third of the domestic oil we use. It also supports one of the country’s largest recreation and tourism industries–to the tune of $20 billion a year and more than 600,000 jobs. And with 207 estuaries and 30 major rivers flowing into it, the Gulf is the drainage basin for the entire country.
But this workhorse is supporting more people than it ever has before–and the region’s thriving economy and urban development are stripping away the natural systems that keep the Gulf healthy and protect the people who live along its shores. The evidence of this is mounting: the Gulf has lost 50 percent of its oyster reefs, nearly 50 percent of its wetlands, and 60 percent of its seagrass beds, critical natural attributes it needs to be self-sustaining. It’s as if we’ve asked an elite athlete to run a marathon without water.
So what can we do about it? When situations like the Galveston spill occur, the urgency and priority lies in cleanup. But the larger conversation must be how we can fortify coastal wetlands, bays and shorelines to ensure they can rebound when accidents like this happen. We need to be focused on restoring healthy shorelines and protecting critical habitats; protecting freshwater resources, which are the lifeblood of the Gulf and those who depend on it; and ensuring Gulf communities are part of the economic and social benefits of restoration activities. Making smart, strategic investments in solutions like these–ideas that preserve natural resources and maintain our natural infrastructure–we can reduce risk and improve access to clean water and open space for future generations.