A decade removed from the largest environmental disaster in United States history, scientists continue work to ensure the nation is better prepared to respond to another such catastrophe — all the while hoping it never needs to do so.

GoMAMN logoApril 30, 2020, marks the 10th anniversary of oil coming ashore and impacting the Gulf of Mexico coastline after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This vast oil spill has highlighted the risk present to the coastal habitats and offshore waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico — one of the most ecologically and socio-economically important ecosystems in the world.

For Clemson University Professor Patrick Jodice, one of the scientists who worked on the spill response, coordinating studies of numerous species of coastal birds including brown pelicans was the first order of business.

“One of the challenges with these spills from an environmental degradation standpoint is that with animals we often focus on the immediate mortality, but you can have an immediate death, or you can also see animals hang in there for four or six months with some illness and then succumb later and it may not be clear that it was an event from six months ago that caused it,” Jodice said.

On April 20, 2010, the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, operating in the Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded and sank resulting in the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon and the largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations.

Four million barrels of oil flowed from the damaged Macondo well over an 87-day period, before it was finally capped on July 15, 2010. At its height, 88,522 square miles of sea were closed to fishing because of the spill, according to a federal report to then-President Barack Obama.

“This oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” Obama said in his Address to the Nation. “And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it is not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

To continue the fight, the Gulf of Mexico Avian Monitoring Network (GoMAMN) was formed to facilitate the collection and utilization of bird monitoring data to inform conservation and restoration decision making.

GoMAMN is a self-organized group of federal, state, academic and NGO scientists and managers using the principles of structured decision making to prioritize guidelines for avian monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico, for specific management relevant questions and impacted species of birds, now published in a report entitled “Strategic Bird Monitoring Guidelines for the Northern Gulf of Mexico.” The Strategic Bird Monitoring Guidelines are advisory in nature and are intended to be a living document updated every five years to reflect our increased understanding of how bird populations respond to conservation actions and underlying ecological processes.

Pelicans with leg bands

After the Deepwater Horizon spill, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) recognized brown pelicans, like the ones pictured here, were an understudied species and sought out Professor Pat Jodice’s research team at Clemson — which had already spent six years of research on the species — to aid restoration efforts.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“GoMAMN has been focused very strongly on trying to fill data gaps so that the next time this happens — and hopefully it never happens — we’ve got those data gaps filled and we have coordinated, long-term monitoring in place so that we can better understand how these wildlife populations respond to not just a human-caused environmental stressor like an oil spill, but to a potentially natural stressors such as hurricanes or even climate change,” Jodice said. “So, the data will serve all those purposes.”

A diverse range of bird species, including brown pelicans, were impacted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Not enough was known about the status of these birds prior to the spill and even less was understood about how to restore them to healthy population sizes.

“We were trying to get a better understanding of that, as well,” said Jodice, a faculty member in Clemson’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation. “When they calculate the fine to the spiller, some of that fine is based on the mortality rate for different species. And if all you’re counting is what dies in the first month, but animals succumb four months later or six months later, that does not typically get built into the fine. So, we were trying to look into the immediate impact and also the slightly longer-term impact to some of these coastal birds like brown pelicans.”

And the findings from that research were clearly significant. In December 2010, the U.S. filed a complaint in District Court against BP Exploration & Production and other defendants alleged to be responsible for the spill, ultimately reaching a record-setting settlement with BP Exploration & Production for an unprecedented $5.5 billion Clean Water Act penalty and up to $8.8 billion in natural resource damages, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of the Deepwater Horizon settlement, large-scale restoration work has begun in the northern Gulf of Mexico and presents a new set of opportunities to understand bird populations and advance bird-habitat conservation. For this restoration process to succeed, decision makers will need information on bird ecology, life-history strategies, and responses to environmental change to account for the myriad stressors from natural processes to anthropogenic activities that affect the health and persistence of bird populations.

And for Jodice’s research team at Clemson, that work on the Deepwater Horizon disaster has led to numerous studies on seabirds in the Gulf and elsewhere, including the university’s home state. The team began studying pelicans off the coast of South Carolina in 2004. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) recognized brown pelicans, in particular, were an understudied species and sought out Clemson’s team — which had already spent six years of research on the species — to aid restoration efforts.

But while the actual explosion of the Deepwater Horizon occurred on April 20, 2010, as the 10-year anniversary of the event approached, the members of GoMAMN quickly decided that it was not the appropriate date to focus on the scientific response due to the tragic loss of 11 human lives.

“We decided that the 11 people who lost their lives that day needed to be the focus on that date, not what we do with birds,” Jodice said. “For those families, clearly that’s what it means to them and I would imagine that they probably get a little frustrated hearing it referred to as ‘the largest environmental disaster in American history,’ when in fact they lost a loved one.”

Thus, with April 30, 2020, representing the 10-year anniversary of oil coming ashore, GoMAMN has been strongly focused on trying to fill the data gaps that were problematic during the initial response in order to put the U.S. in a better position to respond to any future such disasters, whether caused by man or nature.

“The spill was the catalyst for all these scientists and agency biologists to come together and say, ‘We need to put ourselves in a better situation moving forward where we have access to the data that we need, we have coordinated monitoring programs that we can rely on to help us understand what the system was like and then to be able to monitor the situation moving forward in a coordinated fashion,’” Jodice said.