Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Outdoorsmen in anguish as oil closes in on waterfowl habitat

Waterfowl along our coast are in mortal danger as the BP rig disaster continues to gush crude oil. The press has concentrated mainly on Louisiana's state bird, the brown pelican, and rightfully so. This magnificent bird, brought back from near-extinction in Louisiana, numbers about 12,000 to 13,000 breeding pairs plus clutches of two eggs and fledglings.However, more devastation is about to unfold. As conservationists with a focus on wetlands and waterfowl, the Louisiana Waterfowl Alliance is in anguish at the thought of what might happen when, in just a few months, migratory ducks begin to arrive on our coast where already our resident mottled ducks are being impacted by the oil.

Between 3 million and 4 million ducks spend the winter in Louisiana. The majority settle in our coastal marshes. In addition, many millions more pass through and spend time in coastal Louisiana from August to April.

About 50,000 to 60,000 mottled ducks are year-round residents. Nonmigratory, they live in a limited habitat range in costal Louisiana, so they have been very vulnerable to the oncoming oil.
Additional millions of geese, coots, rails, snipe and other shore birds depend on our coastal marshes during late summer, fall, and winter; many live there all year. The total bird life in the area is impossible to count, but migratory waterfowl usage is somewhere near 13 million. If the oil is not stopped soon and the shoreline cleaned up rapidly, the result could be tragic.
Miles of our coastal marshes have been coated by oil for more than six weeks now. Little has been removed yet. Oil is drifting just offshore of many more miles of coastline.
And more is on the way.
During fall and winter, large rafts of ducks -- numbering in the thousands -- rest just offshore in the daytime exactly where the oil is now, and it will only spread more.
All it will take is a small tropical storm to force the oil over most of our southeastern coastal wetlands.
Meteorologists are predicting an active hurricane season. Oiling of migratory waterfowl is not only possible -- it is likely inevitable. And this is to a large extent in areas that are not accessible except by airboat, making it almost impossible to rescue and clean birds.
Untold numbers of waterfowl could and probably will be affected, resulting in a tremendous impact on duck populations and migration patterns for years to come, if not forever, in the central and Mississippi flyways. For those of us who love the outdoors, this is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.
All of this is in addition to severe damage and further, permanent catastrophic loss of these wetlands, vital and irreplaceable for many reasons, and the main wintering habitat of those waterfowl that would still try to come to Louisiana in the future.
For those who cherish the beauty of our coastal homeland and our outdoor heritage, this horrifying loss is almost impossible to quantify. However, there is a dollar value on waterfowl hunting. The potential environmental destruction and loss of wildlife will result in additional millions of dollars lost to our economy from reduced hunting opportunities. In fact, an LSU survey in 2006-07 estimated three quarters of a billion dollars spent yearly on waterfowl hunting in Louisiana.
What can be done?
To begin with, concentrate on stopping the leak instead of just trying to recover the oil. The Louisiana Waterfowl Alliance strongly urges BP and our state and federal governments to intensify the response and get the job done more quickly.
A stronger effort should be made by the federal government to prevent the oil from entering our fragile estuaries. The encroaching oil should be treated like a war threat and stopped before it reaches our nation's shores.
Of course, the responsible parties should be forced to repair the resulting damage to the habitat and restore it to at least pre-spill conditions. The federal and state governments should proceed with accelerated plans of coastal restoration.
To prevent such disasters in the future, it's time to upgrade the safety and fail-safe devices used by drilling rigs. For instance, a prefabricated apparatus sitting on shore could be used to cut off flow of oil if a blowout occurs. Such fail-safes should be mandated for use in all deepwater drilling.
The oil industry has become as much a part of our culture and heritage as fishing and hunting and is essential to Louisiana's and the country's economic fortunes and future. Although its practices should be reformed, offshore energy development should not be abandoned. Even a short-term moratorium will be devastating to the state's economy. Instead, insist that the responsible parties clean up this mess, and that the industry adopt safer practices. An entire way of life is at stake.
Dr. Noel F. Pilie´is a lifetime coastal Louisiana resident and ardent outdoorsman who lives in Metairie. He can be reached at The Louisiana Waterfowl Alliance is a nonprofit organization representing waterfowl hunters and waterfowl-lovers.

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