Veterinarians poised to help in Gulf oil spill disaster

Veterinarians poised to help in Gulf oil spill disaster

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May 27, 2010
National Report -- When oil from the Gulf Coast spill started moving toward the wetlands of the Florida coast, Dr. Norm Griggs sounded the alarm on Facebook. Four days later, he had 7,000 volunteers ready to help affected wildlife.

“I have a serious army of volunteers,” he said. “One way or another, we have got it covered.” While the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates 5,000 barrels -- 210,000 gallons — of oil are spilling into the Gulf of Mexico each day as the result of an explosion that rocked the Deep Water Horizon oil-drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, only two oiled birds, a Northern Gannet and a Brown Pelican had been rescued as of early May.

Still, some officials believe the worst is yet to come. At press time, the oil spill had not reached landfall, which includes the Louisiana coast and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, but Griggs said it was close to the western part of Florida.

A week after the disaster, Griggs said he started calling friends and a few days later had 1,700 volunteers signed up. Four days later, after some friends sent out a message on Facebook, Griggs had 7,000 volunteers. “When I thought of the oil spill making its way here, I sounded the alarm,” he said. “When sick birds start coming in, we need to be prepared.”

All eyes are on the potential ecological damage that could result from the spill.

“Our part of Florida is very unique,” says Griggs, of Crawfordville, up near the panhandle. “It is a marine estuary of marshland filled with fiddler crabs, Eagles and Osprey.”

Ken Rice, wildlife branch director for operations for the Mobile sector, which includes Mississippi, Alabama and Northern Florida, explained that the Northern Gannet is a sea bird. “When it was impacted, it flew to the closest land. It could take awhile for impacted birds to reach land. We don’t know what the future has for us.”

He added that several dead sea turtles also washed up on shore, but showed no sign of oiling. Necropsies were being performed on some of the turtles, he said.

BP, who leased the Deep Water Horizon oil rig, contracted with Delaware-based Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research to deal with wildlife involved in the oil spill. Tri-State representatives confirmed it was contracted by BP, but referred all calls to the International Bird Rescue Center.

Griggs said he was happy to see Tri-State lined up to coordinate the efforts.

While offshore efforts are working to contain, collect and disperse the spill, environmental agencies and volunteers are preparing for possible onshore ramifications. Wildlife experts have identified several sensitive areas — mostly marshlands — around the Mississippi Sound and the Alabama Delta.

“This is the worst time something like this could have happened,” Rice said, pointing out that the larval fish are in the marshlands and birds are nesting on rookery islands. “We’re not just talking about birds and turtles, but their habitat and their food source.”

Rehabilitation sites for birds have been established in Gulfport, Miss.; Theodore, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla.

According to information from the International Bird Rescue Center, when an oiled bird arrives at the facility, it will receive a full physical including blood work, weight and a thorough examination of the extent of the oiling. Many oiled birds are dehydrated so they are given an IV and oral hydration.

“There birds are stressed,” Rice said, adding once they are stabilized, they rest for 24 hours. Birds are then washed with soapy water. According to the rescue center, it takes up to four people and 45 minutes to wash a large bird. The cleaned birds are allowed to recover and preen until waterproof. Before they are released, each bird gets a federal bird band. Federal and state wildlife agencies then determine the best locations to release them.

The Northern Gannet and Brown Pelican were released May 10 at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rice added that regular helicopter flights are searching the area for injured wildlife.

Rescue centers in Gulfport, Miss. and Fort Walton Beach and Panama City, Fla. also have been established for turtles and mammals.

“Concerns for turtles are more internal or around the eyes,” Rice said, adding that dolphins will tend to avoid the oil.

Officials in the Florida Keys also are keeping an eye on the situation.

“Although it is still too soon to predict if or how the Florida Keys may be impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill, we are focused on preparing for whatever those impacts may be,” said Capt. Pat DeQuattro, sector commander at Coast Guard Sector Key West.

Rice and his team are also ready.

“We have been preparing for this for years; ever since the Exxon Valdez,” Rice said. “We’re on top of it. We are ready to go. We’ve made the preparations, but hopefully the oil will stay in the Gulf.”

The NOAA is restricting fishing until May 17 in federal waters affected by the BP oil spill -- between Louisiana state waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River to waters off Florida’s Pensacola Bay. NOAA reports that the closed area comprises only 4.5 percent of the Gulf of Mexico federal waters. The vast majority of Gulf waters have not been affected by the oil spill and continue to support productive fisheries, they said.

To report oiled or injured wildlife, call 866-557-1401. To discuss spill-related damage, call 800-440-0858. To report oiled shoreline or to request volunteer information, call 866-448-5816.