Open Mic: Citizens clean up and researchers protect birds after oil spill

At the Mic: Michael Ivkov
A current Sophomore at Trinity School in New York City, Michael has conducted research with the Audubon Society of New York City on wintering birds in the North Woods and is a devoted Central Park birder. Recently he worked with professors and doctoral candidates in Southern Louisiana, studying the Common Loon (his favorite species). He is also the editor of the blog Get Your Bird On. Besides birding, he enjoys reading Ancient Greek, playing Water Polo, and cooking spaghetti carbonara.

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Port Sulfur is one of many small towns lining the southern coast of Louisiana. Only two hours away from New Orleans, the town is mostly centered around one highway, which paves its way down the tip of Louisiana from New Orleans to Venice. Boasting a population of about 1,700, the majority of families in Port Sulfur still live in FEMA houses–the small, cinder-block supported, ready-to-go, remnants of Louisiana’s ongoing recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the region in 2005.
On March 18, 2013, I arrived at the headquarters of the loon recovery effort team. “Headquarters” turned out to be a pink house near the banks of the Mississippi River and its levy. The research team I was a part of was lead by a young student, Hannah, who outlined the plan of research and what we were looking for. Hannah explained that the Common Loon is an apex predator throughout North America; it preys on both freshwater and saltwater fish, as well as crustaceans.

Common Loon. Photo by Art Weber/USFWS

Common Loon. Photo by Art Weber/USFWS


Upon the combustion of the MC252 Deep Water Horizon oil rig’s cap on April 20, 2010, gallons of petroleum surrounded the rig. Water currents and winds directed the gushing oil across the Gulf, eventually covering a net area of over 600 miles, although the Gulf’s northern coasts were undoubtedly the most affected area. Moreover, by the time British Petroleum (BP) finally sealed the cap to stop the leakage, more than 4.9 million barrels (that’s about 200 million gallons) of crude oil had already been released into the Gulf.
Double booms laid by British Petroleum (BP) contractors to protect key areas of North Breton, Breton National Wildlife Refuge, in anticipation of incoming oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Double booms laid by British Petroleum (BP) contractors to protect key areas of North Breton, Breton National Wildlife Refuge, in anticipation of incoming oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Photo by Tom MacKenzie/USFWS.


It goes without saying that the Deepwater Horizon spill devastated the Gulf’s ecosystem, causing countless deaths of animals and adverse effects on citizens. Since the spill, citizens and scientists have been studying the Gulf’s conditions and continuing the long clean-up process. Scientists like Hannah have been monitoring not only the petroleum levels in the Gulf’s water, but also traces of the oil toxins in animals–in our case, the Common Loon.
So where’s the link between studying birds and cleaning up an oil spill? Well, by its very nature, the Common Loon is a phenomenal bioindicator. This means that loons can display the collective elements of what they eat. These “elements” can include toxins such as PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) which are found in oil, or even dispersants used to break down the oil, like COREXIT 9500, which is a highly carcinogenic and mutagenic toxin to living things. Our field work involved capturing loons at night and taking blood samples to measure toxins like PAH.
Although each member of our team had different reasons for joining, we shared a unifying drive to help these magnificent birds recover. Within the first week, we had met the captain of the small fishing vessel we would use to capture birds. Todd was a Louisiana local and ran a sport fishing business in the area. Tall, lean, and sporting a weathered charter-fishing cap, Todd often stood behind his navigation devices, watching us work. He told stories about the effects of the oil spill on his business and the fish he caught. Todd’s devotion certainly did not revolve around the paycheck he received from Earthwatch, a non-profit organization; he wanted to the recover the health of his home after the oil spill.
One cold and windy night on the boat, the team captured its first Common Loon. The large juvenile bird, which had a wingspan of over 100 cm, was in a panic and fighting for survival. After the team secured the bird, each volunteer passed the juvenile around the deck. Whether it was the retired lady who joined our trip, or the young budding biologist of 22, everyonr was brought to silence when given the revered wild bird; our motivation for joining the trip was even clearer.
But, the most important part of our research had yet to come. The team passed the bird to Hannah to test for samples of oil or toxins. She proceeded to quickly draw a blood sample from the loon’s neck as well as take fecal and feather samples. Standing at the back of the boat, a volunteer turned and said to me, “It’s actually unbelievable how much we can find out from the health of one juvie [juvenile] loon.” After collecting samples from the bird, we released the animal into the pitch black waters of the Gulf.
In the next week, Dr. Jim Paruk, head of the expedition and Center for Loon Conservation Senior Scientist, arrived at our residence. Driven, motivated, amusing, and humble, Dr. Paruk gave a second wind to the team. He told us stories about how his love of nature persisted from his school days. This fascination sparked his interest in birds, and when Deepwater Horizon spilled in 2010, his conscience brought him to study the consequences of the spill. In his summary annual year report, Dr. Paruk concluded his findings by stating:

We have shown that (1) the frequency and levels of PAHs in the circulatory system of loons has increased in the years following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; (2) coastal Louisiana loons are long-distant migrants; (3) the great majority of the immature loons are underweight and emaciated, and on average, are found closer to shore than adults; and (4) crabs appear to be an integral part of their diet. Currently, it is unknown if the levels of oil metabolites present in the loon circulatory system are having any lethal or sublethal effects. Although bioaccumulation of PAHs in ecosystems varies by species and is generally difficult to quantify, our preliminary findings suggest that further monitoring of the wintering loons in Barataria Bay, Louisiana is warranted.

Dr. Paruk embodied the mission I set out on. He regarded every bird as an indicator of the Gulf’s status. Each bird was a citizen, and in a way, the loon was a microcosm of its environment. What we extracted from the seven or so loons we caught would show the quantity of PAHs in crustaceans and fish. Loons are what they eat, at least with regard to the toxins introduced into the waters of the Gulf.
Although mutations related to the spilled petroleum in the Gulf have decreased since 2010, a long journey remains. As the Earthwatch Year 1 Annual Report shows, an ongoing trend for immature loons to have slightly higher levels of PAHs than adult loons persists to this day. The Common Loon’s niche leaves it especially vulnerable to consuming toxins. However, animals lower on the food chain have been affected, as well. Furthermore, both the commercial and sport fishing industries have faced ongoing difficulties due to the spill. Witnessing the presence of oil toxins in an environment two years after Deepwater Horizon really drove this point home for me.

2013-12-31T13:01:30+00:00