Brown pelicans under seige
By Juliet Eilperin
GRAND ISLE, La. -- Under normal circumstances, Grand Isle is a place where shrimpers work and doctors vacation. Now, it is a place where everyone works on the oil spill.
Clint Edds, a fisheries biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, conducts regular reconnaissance missions out on Barataria Bay, looks for oil that threatens the area's birds and marine life. When he spots a slick off Queen Bess Island -- orange-brown in color, snaking through the water in the pattern of a thunderbolt -- he gets on the radio.
"They've got to get a boat out here," he declares. A few hundred yards away lies one of the basin's densest pelican colonies.
Since oil infiltrated the bay late last week, scientists have found dozens of injured animals along with damaged marsh. Brown pelicans, which were just taken off the federal endangered species list last year, have become covered in oil.
One such pelican perched atop a pylon as Edds's boat passed by. The feathers atop its head and on its chest were matted with oil, and although it began to fly off, it returned to alight on a rock a matter of seconds later. Oil can impair not only birds' ability to fly but also their circulatory, immune and reproductive systems.
Edds's request has to go through a chain of command before a boat can respond to it, but plenty of small boats are trolling the water, skimming off oil. They all boast a red circle with white letters spelling "MC 252," code for the downed Deepwater Horizon rig operation, which went by the name Mississippi Canyon 252.
Small shrimp and oyster boats dot the water here, trailing yellow boom splattered with oil. Fisheries enforcement boats cruise by as well, searching for any fishing vessels that might be violating the federal ban imposed in light of the spill.
At the moment, at least, the cleanup offers some sort of employment to locals as well as some boat owners who have traveled here from elsewhere in the state. Richard Barney, who has worked for both the state fisheries and wildlife agency and independent oil companies, motored over from Port Sulphur --"20 miles by boat, 150 miles driving," he said.
He now ferries wildlife officials around to look for oiled birds, and although he has worked on oil spills since 1994, he sees this one as more insidious. "This is different from anything anybody's seen," he said. "It's just a milky mess."
And while Barney would like to believe BP will shut off the leaking oil by performing a "top kill" maneuver, he's not willing to predict the outcome.
"That's the only shot they've got," he said. "That's all they can do. Or we wait for three months to drill back into it."
Juliet Eilperin| May 25, 2010; 2:03 PM ET Save & Share:
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