RECOVERING, RESTORING

Oiled Pelican rests on a rock
Rescued oiled pelican in a crate awaits transport to rehabilitation facility
Oiled pelican on beach
Rescue and assessment boats patrol the oiled areas searching for impacted wildlife
Absorbent boom deployed around bird habitat
LDWF staff patrols oil impacted area for oiled wildlife
Turtles were among the many animals impacted by the oil spill
USFWS evidence tag on deceased oiled animal
Many shore birds were impacted by the oil spill
LDWF staff rescue oil-impacted bird
LDWF staff uses net to rescue oiled pelican
Many successfully rehabilitated birds were released back into the wild

LDWF’s Actions During, After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill 10 Years Ago Help In Mitigating The Disaster

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

 

Todd Baker has a positive disposition but considering the circumstances in the spring of 2010 in coastal Louisiana his idea that Queen Bess Island could be restored, even be made better, seemed delusional. The island, located in Barataria Bay near Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, was an oil-covered mess, a catastrophe for wildlife.

 

When the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the largest man-made disaster in American history, occurred on April 20, 2010, Louisiana’s coastline was in the cross hairs. Oil from the spill seemed to seep into every nook and cranny in the central and southeastern part of coastal Louisiana. Queen Bess Island was near the epicenter.

 

The island is a key colonial water bird nesting colony, including hatching 15-20 percent of brown pelicans in Louisiana in a given year. But many of the birds were slathered in oil. The oil covered the entire perimeter rocks that were designed to protect the island and the oil even penetrated the interior of the island. It was one of the most photographed and videoed areas during the disaster and the pictures gave a microcosm of the depth of this cataclysmic event.

 

But as he and other Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists gathered oiled pelicans, birds and other wildlife for rescue, Baker truly believed better days were ahead.

 

In February of 2020, almost 10 years after the oil spill, Baker proved to be right. Queen Bess Island was restored and a celebration that included Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state dignitaries was held on the once unsightly oiled island where so much carnage was inflicted.

 

With Natural Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA, funds from the $5 billion Deepwater Horizon Oil Settlement, Queen Bess Island went from having only about five acres of available nesting habitat to about 36 acres.

 

“Even back during the spill, I thought we were going to have a day where we could sit back and look at what happened and see a much different, much better place,” said Baker, LDWF’s Coastal Resource Scientist Manager for Wildlife. “There were several days being on that island during the spill, collecting birds and thinking, ‘How can these impacts ever be truly restored?’ I have long looked forward to the day we would be standing on the island with a true restoration success story under our feet.

 

“But it was bittersweet. The funding opportunity from this allows us to do something very meaningful for a long time into the future. That’s good. At the same time, you remember all the lost wildlife from the spill and wonder if the money will ever truly restore all the impacts. And that’s a question I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to truly answer. But hopefully our restoration efforts  will exceed expectations and exceed the  impacts realized from the spill. The funding we have is a great opportunity to do some meaningful restoration. It is imperative that we use every dollar wisely.”

 

The impacts were substantial and probably can’t be truly quantified. An unfathomable 4.9 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico because of the disaster during 87 days. All five Gulf Coast states were impacted but certainly none more than Louisiana.

 

More than 5,000 birds, dead and alive, were collected in Louisiana because of the disaster. This comprised approximately 65 percent of the bird recoveries throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Brown pelicans made up 22 percent of all recoveries. Data collected suggests the impact on birds was between 51,000-84,000 and more than likely on the high end of that scale.

 

That doesn’t begin to include the toll on Louisiana’s offshore and estuarine fisheries, which can probably never be calculated.

 

The spill formed an oil slick that was more than 57,000 square miles in the Gulf. An estimated 1,100 miles of shoreline was polluted.

 

“You had every assemblage of wildlife being hit,” Baker said. “Every basin throughout coastal Louisiana was being hit. Fishermen and recreational hunters were told they couldn’t go fishing or hunting. To restore something with the impacts was such a large scale. And it wasn’t just Louisiana. The five Gulf Coast states were hit. It was hard to realize at the time what restoration would look like at that scale.”

 

It took nearly seven years to reach a dollar settlement but when it was finally agreed upon, careful and thoughtful planning by many partners, including the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, was made to mitigate the disaster.

 

Already, a lot of good has come and will come from the settlement money. A total of 50 projects in Louisiana have been identified, including Queen Bess Island’s restoration. Some are in the works with others in the planning stage.

 

Though the magnitude of the damage from the oil spill can never be measured in dollars and the resources lost never replaced, progress on restoring what can be has been substantial as the 10-year anniversary of the disaster arrives.

Dubbed the Louisiana Restoration Area, the projects focus on restoring wetlands, coastal and nearshore habitats, restoring water quality and habitat and replenishing and protecting wildlife and marine resources. There will also be projects to provide and enhance recreational opportunities as well as restore habitats on federal lands in the state.

 

The $5 billion Louisiana  will receive through the next approximately 12 years is considered natural resource damage funding to restore oil spill impacts. A little more than $4 billion is earmarked to restore and conserve coastal habitat.

 

Of that, a little more than $220 million is dedicated specifically for bird restoration. The settlement money will also go toward sea turtle restoration and marine mammals, submerged aquatic vegetation and oysters just to name a few. Also included is $38 million to restore for recreational losses during spill. Some of those projects will be to add boat launches and camping opportunity to LDWF Wildlife Management Areas and Louisiana’s state parks.

 

It’s an ambitious list but one that is now underway to attempt to restore the damage that began on that April night in 2010.

 

The Storm Begins

LDWF personnel are adept at handling oil spills. It’s comes with the territory as Louisiana is one of the nation’s top oil and gas producers. As much as you wish they weren’t, spills are inevitable in the state. Baker and his team knew the drill. But this one was different. Much different.

 

“There was no playbook for this,” Baker said. “Most of the plans that were in place were found to be insufficient for the spill that we were facing. Fortunately, we had worked many oil spills before the BP Oil Spill. Our staff was pretty knowledgeable. However, we had never experienced anything of this magnitude.”

 

Baker, LDWF biologists Laura Carver and Cassidy Lejeune were actually in the field in Plaquemines Parish working another spill when word of the Deepwater Horizon explosion came out. A command center was established in Houma and they moved there immediately as LDWF was one of the first responders.

 

Former LDWF biologist director Mike Carloss, who now works for Ducks Unlimited as its Director of Conservation Programs, Southwest, was among the first to arrive in Houma for what would be a near yearlong stint in responding to the disaster. Carloss, now based in Lafayette, said he occasionally still drives by the command center in Houma. When he does, the memories come racing back.

 

Because the Deepwater Horizon rig was so far offshore, the oil gushing from the well didn’t arrive to Louisiana’s coast for a couple of days. Carloss, a Louisiana native, compared it to waiting on a hurricane.

 

“It’s like the storm coming,” said Carloss, who worked for LDWF for about 28 years before retiring and moving on to DU in 2014. “You know it’s coming. And then all of a sudden, those outer bands of oil start hitting the coastal areas. And it just continued to different areas at different times, sometimes the same times in different areas. And when it ramped up, it kind of got overwhelming at times. There was often this feeling of helplessness. I can honestly say those feelings never really leave you.”

 

The oil worked its way north, touching Pass a Loutre at the mouth of the Mississippi River first, then the Chandeleurs. Finally it made its way toward Grand Isle, snaking into Louisiana’s treasured coastal marshes and estuaries.

 

“I was able to direct some of the recovery between Pass a Loutre, Grand Isle and Raccoon Island,” Carloss said. “I had the ability of moving where the oil was heading and to assist LDWF staff already stationed there. When it hit Queen Bess badly we were doing rescue operations. I recall a guy from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was from California, and a few technicians and I got up in the island’s interior nesting area.

 

“When we went into the lagoon and climbed up into the mangroves, it was just a colony of heavily oiled and many dead birds. Just, I don’t know, seemed like hundreds of heavily oiled pelicans. Young birds sitting on nests. It was depressing to say the least. And we were wondering, how do we best handle this.”

 

LDWF was a vital part of the cleanup and what was known as the Incident Command Team, which was made up of government agencies headed by the U.S. Coast Guard . What set apart LDWF in the response, however, was no group knew the Louisiana landscape like it did.

 

The passion with which LDWF personnel served during the oil spill response was unparalleled, Baker and Carloss said. They worked long hours, days, weeks, months that bled into a year.

 

“Our ability to communicate as a team was important to the success of the response,” Baker said. “Each person in the field had a radio they could communicate with the wildlife branch at the Houma Command Center instantly. Communication from the top to the bottom was a simple push of a button. LDWF’s passage of information was unparalleled during the incident. It allowed the Department to serve as a true indicator to Incident Command on the severity of oiling and provide real time updates, observations, and needs for our wetlands and wildlife.

 

Baker said because this was an offshore spill, a different game plan had to be devised. But the spill was so massive that it overwhelmed the Coast Guard and BP’s efforts to protect land and wildlife.

 

As the oil was heading in, LDWF biologists and technicians started making runs along the coast in boats and planes to take inventory of where there were large concentrations of wildlife such as colonies, popular loafing areas, feeding  areas that were vulnerable.

 

“We were able to get an inventory early on before the spill hit and work with BP and the Coast Guard to start protecting the assets before the oil came in,” Baker said. “In theory, we were able to respond before the oil came in. But what we found out very quickly was the BP response effort was not up to par and the recommended protection measures did not get up before the oil came in. And we found the ability for the responders to maintain those booms and other protections was severely lacking.”

 

In essence, they were swallowed in the gigantic, quick moving oil slick.

 

Protecting was only part of the task. Documenting oiled wildlife and attempting to rescue birds and other wildlife and clean it was another spoke in the wheel. And it was, Baker said, a daunting task.

 

“Fortunately, we had department biologists and technicians who came to the table willing to work every single day,” Baker said. “We were able to stage biological staff  in every single basin. Each basin is different so how we did response to each basin was handled differently. Some places, we did patrols daily in the same areas. In other places that were remote and hard to get to, like in the Biloxi Marsh, they would patrol a different area every day. The ladies and guys in this department did a great job of responding to a very remote, very hard to access coast in very hot and foul conditions.

 

“The ability of our staff to have meaningful input on the response effort was extraordinary. No other organization had that capability. And when it came time to pull in all the booms and infrastructure we were able to have real time feed into the command center that was second to none.”

 

The well was capped July 15, 2010. But the work was far from over for responders. Baker and other LDWF personnel noticed that even though the well was capped, the number of oiled birds reported continue to grow. Weary, BP and USCG responders were ready to pull back, figuring because no more oil was coming out of the ground that wildlife wouldn’t be affected as much. But that wasn’t the case.

 

“It was a fight we had long after the spill,” Baker said. “We kept trying to explain that as long as there is oil in the environment this is going to continue to impact birds. Now we’re moving into the fall and those numbers of birds in coastal Louisiana are only going to increase as migration starts. To have those numbers spiking when everyone else was de-escalating was an interesting time.”

 

It was again where LDWF biologists proved their mettle, Baker said, as they continued to do surveillance, find oiled birds and bring them in for rescue and cleaning.

 

“We captured more birds in Louisiana than the rest of the states combined,” Baker said. “That’s keeping in mind how remote and difficult it is to reach some of our coast. Our guys had to go out in boats and look in every nook and cranny, marsh, mudflat, everything to find these birds. It was challenging and they came through extraordinarily.”

 

Under the Water

That was one part of it, the part you could see. But the oil was also affecting fisheries resources as well. More than a third of federal waters in the Gulf were closed to fishing during the peak of the spill due to fears of contamination.

 

The Louisiana coast was closed to fishing as well and it did great harm to Louisiana’s commercial seafood industry.

 

Perhaps hardest hit was the oyster industry. Though fish and sea mammals were certainly adversely affected, they had some defense in that they could swim away from the spill. Oysters, however, were stuck.

 

Brady Carter, LDWF’s Coastal Resource Scientist Manager for Fisheries, said the oil spill was a catastrophic injury to the oyster industry and it may never fully recover. A total of $40 million was allocated to public oyster beds as part of the settlement. But, he said, it’s difficult to quantify the loss incurred to oysters during and after the spill.

 

“In the intertidal area, the oyster damage was really big,” said Carter, who oversees fisheries restoration from the spill for LDWF. “How much we lost is hard to measure due to the nature of oysters. Each generation requires the shells of their ancestors to settle/grow on, this cycle maintains functioning oyster reefs. If any part of this cycle is impacted eventually there will be consequences when reefs cannot maintain their own height naturally while erosion-induced sedimentation of water bodies is steadily increasing. We’ve seen some issues on both sides of the Mississippi River. It’s just magnified the demise of a resource that was already struggling and it may not ever come back to what is was in those impacted areas.

 

“It makes you second guess yourself constantly on where to start. The real hard part is trying to put it back efficiently with available resources, especially considering how dynamic coastal Louisiana is. What Mother Nature designed and built through eons, man had begun to disassemble and then this happened and pressed fast-forward…. Where do you start? Everything in shambles.”

 

Looking Back and Ahead

Carter, a St. Bernard Parish native, was on the front lines during the spill, working for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources at the time. He, like Baker and Carloss, remembers the long hours and how sad it was to watch the oil infiltrate Louisiana’s cherished coast.

 

“With the high tide, the oil would go further back into the marsh,” Carter said. “I spent a lot of time doing shoreline work and it’s almost impossible to describe the damage I saw. The projects that have started and we have coming up will help. But, being from Louisiana, it’s something you wished had never happened.”

 

Rescue efforts finally scaled down by April 2011. As the anniversary comes, Carloss said he has vivid memories of the event and being exhausted by the time it ended. He said it was a time of great sacrifice for many at LDWF. The long work meant time away from family and other things they enjoyed.

 

“Our lives were pretty nuts for about a year,” Carloss said. “A year of madness. Then Todd and I started working on restoration plans. We had already talked about restoration prior to that but then were able to change it up.”

 

Baker has transitioned to his current job with LDWF that oversees many of the projects in the restoration plan. As he does that, he said he remembers most every day the work done by LDWF staff during the spill.

 

“We had staff from every program and every discipline working together including our clerical staff,” Baker said. “It wasn’t easy. Our guys and gals pushed through all the adversity thrown our way, heat, bad weather, long hours, whatever. I can’t be more pleased with how our department came together and worked together like it did. I’ve never seen it before and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again.”

 

Allocation of Louisiana Restoration Area Funds

This table shows the restoration goals and types for the Louisiana Restoration Area.

 

Restore and Conserve Habitat
Wetlands, Coastal, and Nearshore Habitats $4,009,062,700
Habitat Projects on Federally Managed Lands $50,000,000
Early Restoration (through Phase IV) $259,625,700
Restore Water Quality
Nutrient Reduction (nonpoint source) $20,000,000
Replenish and Protect Living Coastal

and Marine Resources

Sea Turtles $10,000,000
Submerged Aquatic Vegetation $22,000,000
Marine Mammals $50,000,000
Birds $148,500,000
Early Restoration Birds $71,937,300
Oysters $26,000,000
Early Restoration Oyster $14,874,300
Provide and Enhance Recreational Opportunities
Provide and Enhance Recreational Opportunities $38,000,000
Early Restoration of Recreational Loss $22,000,000
Monitoring, Adaptive Management, Administrative Oversight
Monitoring and Adaptive Management $225,000,000
Administrative Oversight and Comprehensive Planning $33,000,000
Total NRD Funding for Louisiana Restoration Area $5,000,000,000

 

Chart courtesy of www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov.

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