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New Study Looks At BP Spill’s Impacts On Birds

By Evelina Burnett | Published 09 Jun 2014 06:00am | comments
The Pascagoula river Audubon Center

A new study estimates as many as 800-thousand Gulf birds were killed by the BP oil spill. As MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports, the estimate shows both the uncertainty that’s part of the process of figuring out the spill’s damage – and how high the stakes are.

Mark LaSalle points out the different birds – coastal residents and migratory – that you can hear in the quiet outside the Pascagoula River Audubon Center.

LaSalle, the center’s director, says the BP spill had both direct and indirect effects on the coast’s avian population.

"Birds are directly affected by oil itself," LaSalle says. "We saw the horrific images of birds with oil all over them, and we just don't know how many of those sunk into the marshes or died and we coul dn't find them - this is rural Louisiana, remote - either directly dying because there's so much oil, or the toxicity of the oil itself over months or years."

A new study, that will be published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, used two models, one based on sampling of bird carcasses after the spill and another looking at exposure probability, and came up with estimates of 600,000 to 800,000 bird deaths from the spill.

BP disputes the findings, however, saying in a statement they believe the study’s authors vastly over-estimated how many dead birds were not recovered. The company says the study’s authors assumed only 1 percent of dead birds washed ashore, while other field studies suggest more than 70 percent washed ashore. BP also claims the study was funded by law firms and organizations pursuing claims against the oil company.

But James Christopher Haney, one of the study’s three authors, says the work was done independently. He also says BP cites numbers based on studies done in 2011 – and oceanographic conditions the year of the spill were very different.

"And we wanted to make sure that those were adequately factored in," Haney says. "What I'm referring to is particular data with respect to tides, ocean currents and winds. And what we learned in the 2010 period is that the oceanography and the conditions in the Gulf of Mexico were quite unusual."

The new study is not part of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, which is the formal process that will decide how much is owed due to damages to the environment. But Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascougala River Audubon Center in Moss Point, says it's a starting point.

"It's the first estimate out of the box," he says. "It's outside again of that legal process - we may not know for a few years what that number that comes out of NRDA will be, and that, ultimately, that number is what is going to be used to have BP compensate us for the loss of the wildlife."

LaSalle says Audubon believes the final number of affected birds might be even higher, in the seven figures. 

BP has already committed $1 billion-dollars to early restoration projects, including $100 million dollars for Mississippi.

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The Pascagoula river Audubon Center


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