INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Despite predictions the most we’ll see from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are tar balls on the beach, there remain concerns about long-term impact to wildlife that make the Treasure Coast home.
In order to judge what, if any, that impact might be, local teams are scouring the area to determine the current health of the local wildlife and ecosystems. With that data in hand there will be a baseline from which to judge any changes should part of the tens of millions of gallons of oil spewing from the BP oil rig reach our local shores.
Trish Adams, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s South Florida Ecological Services Office on 20th Street, has been working almost non-stop helping to put together a Bird Mortality Survey. She and other team members walk beaches in an assigned area every three days in 2-kilometer segments, collecting dead birds, or parts of birds, for testing. With bags and tags, they collect the specimens which are shipped away for evaluation.
“We need to establish a baseline on what’s causing bird mortality along the beaches before the oil gets here,” she says. “A certain amount of mortality is normal for shorebirds from the stresses of fledging, predation, congestion and competition for resources during migratory periods. Birds may already have evidence of hydrocarbons in their systems, but we want to establish a baseline of hydrocarbon levels before we actually have the oil impacts.”
Her team, covering Merritt Island to Round Island, includes a member from Entrix, an environmental and natural resource management firm with an office in Vero Beach. A national firm with over 40 offices nationwide, Entrix is providing each team with supplies that include backpacks, GPS, and laptops, all paid for by BP.
The surveys, covering 25 percent of the shorelines between Merritt Island and Corpus Christi, Texas, are being conducted by combinations of paid consultants like Entrix and government volunteers.
Teams are making sure data collected by all members is done in an identical fashion so there will be no confusion when all the numbers are in.
“We are working together to assure seamless information from the members,” says Adams.
At the Pelican Island Audubon Society, president Dr. Richard Baker is concerned about the safety and possible rehabilitation of oiled birds and the endangered ecology of local waterways.
Will tar balls and other features of the gushing oil make their way into our lagoon?
“We are fortunate here,” says Dr. Baker, “because our lagoon has inlets that are not close together. Bird rookeries like the third island off the 17th Street bridge are very productive this year. County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan says we’ll use boons at the Sebastian Inlet if necessary.”
The group is waiting to hear about a $40,000 Toyota grant they applied for with ORCA – the Fort Pierce-based Ocean Research Conservation Association.
“It would allow us to put out their Kilroy water monitors at the mouth of the Sebastian and Fort Pierce inlets. These devices will help us form a picture of how healthy the lagoon is and how it changes over time,” says Baker.
The Kilroy monitors send out continuous water quality data and are powered by solar energy. New “petrosense” sensors that detect hydrocarbons are now part of their capabilities.
While tar balls can easily be seen, oil under the surface is never so obvious.
“No one can say with certainty what form all the oil is going to be in as it comes around the tip of Florida and up the East Coast,” said ORCA CEO and Senior Scientist, Edie Widder.
One problem she cites is loss of oxygen in the water as the ocean reacts to oil. Microorganisms in the dispersants that have been spread across the Gulf of Mexico use a great deal of oxygen to break down oil, which often times does not leave enough for the other animals that need it.
“This spill could greatly increase the already existing dead zones in the Gulf and create new ones,” Widder said.
Widder, a long time explorer and diver, recalls the long lasting effects of the Exxon Valdez spill on herring, salmon, and cod populations whose numbers remain effected years later.