By Felipe Chavez-Ramirez
The recent oil spill that occurred near Texas City has spread well beyond the incident location and is making land fall on the barrier Islands more than 200 miles south. Matagorda, San Jose, Mustang and Padre Islands have now been affected by the presence of oil on their beaches. As of Tuesday April 2, 43 deceased birds had been collected after encountering oil on these islands (US Coast Guard reports). While Whooping Cranes have not been reported as having been directly impacted to date, Matagorda Island is an important wintering area for the species and the maximum amount of caution should be taken to protect this area in particular. Matagorda Island which is part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex is isolated, with only minimal human disturbance and vehicular traffic. Matagorda’s salt marshes used by Whooping Cranes are also utilized by other bird species so any potential effect on crane habitat may also impact other species. Fortunately to date, oil presence has only been reported on the beach side of the Island. The beach environment, however, is a habitat type used by many species of shorebirds and waterbirds especially during our current migration peak. This incident has reminded us of the potential hazards of an oil spill on Whooping Crane winter habitat even a spill that initiates from hundreds of miles away.
Personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are on site in Matagorda and responding to the oil incident. In particular we know that personnel from the Aransas NWR complex are on site overseeing recovery efforts and ensuring that natural resources are protected and cared for while cleanup efforts are underway. We urge caution and vigilance in dealing with the cleanup efforts on a location like Matagorda Island which is a refuge for many bird species. While it appears that current cleanup efforts involve personnel on foot and small all-terrain vehicles, in past incidents such as Louisiana’s 2010 oil disaster, large earth moving equipment and transportation vehicles can be used and is a standard procedure in cases of oiled sediments (www.epa.gov/emergency-response/epas-response-techniques). If this option is viable and possible for Matagorda Island we hope the USFWS will do all it can to ensure that the areas natural resources are not negatively impacted by the clean-up effort itself. We know from previous efforts that heavy equipment can cause significant and long lasting impacts to areas not directly impacted by oil. We now know that sometimes efforts to stop the spread of oil or cleaning it up once it has reached land, can be destructive to the surrounding areas. We believe the oil needs to be removed but under the guidance and coordination with local staff of Matagorda Island who know the area and its natural resources best.