After Deepwater Horizon A Decade of Audubon Efforts to Restore a resilient Gulf of Mexico

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded: a tragedy taking 11 lives, injuring 17, and sending 210 million gallons of crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The effects of the resulting oil spill, regarded as one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, continue to reverberate across the region. The wellhead was so deep underwater that teams working around the clock could not plug the leak until mid-July, wreaking havoc in coastal communities from Texas to Florida.

Those who loved the Gulf could do nothing but wait and watch, as the oil drifted ever-closer to their fisheries, beaches, and wildlife. In the early days of the spill, Audubon stepped up to organize the rafts of volunteers wanting to help: setting up transports to move oiled birds from the shore to rehabilitation centers, protecting beach nesting birds from accidental harm by emergency clean-up teams, and planning for future restoration.

Despite efforts to burn, skim, disperse, or otherwise contain the spewing crude, an estimated 75% of the oil from the disaster still remained in the Gulf environment.

On December 15, 2010, the United States filed a complaint in District Court against British Petroleum Exploration & Production (BP) and several other defendants alleged to be responsible for the spill. A record-setting settlement resulted in an unprecedented $5.5 billion Clean Water Act penalty and up to $8.8 billion in natural resource damages. Additionally, BP paid $100 million for the incidental take of birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill this year, Audubon continues to be a leader in Gulf coast resilience, science, and conservation, investing in multi-state bird monitoring efforts, education programs, habitat protection, living shorelines, and more. Though the spill remains in our rear-view mirror, a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico drilling is scheduled to expire in 2022, making Florida and its coastal ecology and economy more vulnerable to future disasters.

Read on to join us as we trace the contours of the oil spill disaster to remind us how far we have come, and how far we still have to go to protect the Gulf and the resources its people and birds need now and into the future.

Table of Contents

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A Story of Healing and Resilience

Nearly Gone - Brown Pelican's Brush With Extinction

Survival after the Spill

Rehabilitated Pelicans Spotted at Alafia Banks

Living Shorelines

Conservation at Lanark Reef

Continued Monitoring Across Florida

Protection Works: New Nesting Sites on Florida's Coast

Extending the Moratorium on Drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico

Audubon staff and volunteers were the eyes and ears on the coast, identifying the unintended impact of spill response activities on birds and advocating for birds that can’t speak for themselves.
Brown Pelican. Photo: Dennis Stewart.

Brown Pelicans Return: A Story of Healing and Resilience

After the spill, residents and visitors across the Gulf were enraged, upset, even hopeless. Quickly however, they united across states and coastal communities through their desire to help.

More than 12,000 volunteers joined the effort within a single week in May. The Audubon Volunteer Response Center was established in June 2010 in Moss Point. Over the course of five months, Audubon engaged more than 37,000 volunteers nationally.

Building on already existing coastal monitoring programs in Florida, Audubon recruited and trained 68 volunteers across four states to survey more than 60,000 birds on the coast for six straight months in 2010, and to watch for more oiled populations.

Thanks to this work, Audubon volunteers found 982 oiled birds across 33 species. The rescue effort was driven by Erik Johnson, then a graduate student at Louisiana State University (now Director of Bird Conservation at Audubon Louisiana), and has grown into the Audubon Coastal Bird Survey. Ten years later, the survey continues to record seasonal data on bird populations.

After rehabilitation, researchers gave oiled birds permanent jewelry to help them learn about the animals’ recovery in the form of uniquely numbered leg bands.

In the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, oiled Brown Pelicans became one of the tragedy’s most iconic victims.

As one of Florida’s largest seabirds, Brown Pelicans flock together to breed in colonies. Flying low over the waves, they look for baitfish schooling at the water’s surface, then rise into the air before spiraling back down in an aerial dive as majestic as it is powerful. A slight tilt to their heads prevents injury as they hit the water with a splash, scooping up fish in their large, expandable pouched bills.

Across the Gulf Coast, Brown Pelicans are now a common sight — but they were once quite rare

Voices from the front lines: David Ringer, Audubon.

Nearly Gone — Brown Pelicans’ Brush with Extinction

For decades, plume-hunting, overfishing, and pesticide use decimated their numbers, and pelican populations hit all-time lows in the mid-20th century.

When Louisiana named the Brown Pelican its state bird in 1966, all breeding pelicans had already disappeared from the state. In order to bring pelicans back, Louisiana transported fledglings from Florida in a repopulation effort.

However, only after naming the pelican to the Endangered Species list in 1970, followed by the banning of one of the worst pesticides — DDT — in 1972, did the large seabird begin to recover.

Since the 1970s, the Brown Pelican has symbolized what effective environmental regulation and conservation management can do for a resilient species. Once gone from Louisiana’s shores and declining across its range, the Brown Pelican’s population had exploded to such a degree that they were deemed “recovered” in 1996, removed from the Endangered Species list in 2009, and are now synonymous with coastal communities and tourist destinations across the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast.

Millions of Americans have memories of shading their eyes just in time to see a flock of pelicans gliding over a beach, or watching in awe as they plunge-dive into the waves for a fishy meal.

Brown Pelican. Photo: Scott Kinsey/Great Backyard Bird Count

Survival After the Spill

An estimated 27,000 Brown Pelicans died as a result of the oil spill, and many others that were heavily oiled became a symbol of the harm the disaster wrought upon the avian world. Pelicans are especially vulnerable to long running disasters because it takes them 3-5 years to reach full maturity, and they typically only produce one fledgling per year. A gap in fledging chicks can cause significant population declines. Moreover, Brown Pelicans’ effective reproductive lifespan is only 4-7 years.

In all, researchers estimate that the United States lost 10% of its Brown Pelican population as result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In the immediate days and weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, rehabbers, veterinarians, and volunteers descended on the Gulf of Mexico coastline to de-oil the birds before they perished.

Because so much oil remained in the Gulf for months after the spill, ornithologists worried that pelicans released in the same area would be oiled once more. To give them the best chance at survival, many were moved to neighboring states, including Florida.

“Banding oiled birds that were cleaned and released provides crucial information on long-term survival of birds exposed to crude oil,” says Marianne Korosy, Ph.D., Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Florida. “If/when there is a ‘next time’ we will know much more about the degree of harm to be expected for bird populations.”
Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary. Photo: Erika Zambello.

Rehabilitated Pelicans Spotted at Alafia Banks

After the disaster, two pelicans released in Florida were re-sighted at Audubon’s Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary near Tampa. Set free in Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg, about a dozen miles from the Sanctuary, the pair revealed their identities as Deepwater Horizon survivors through the multicolored bands on their legs.

Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary, which includes Bird Island to the east and Sunken Island to the west, is located in Hillsborough Bay at the mouth of the Alafia River and is leased from The Mosaic Company, who collaborates with Audubon Florida for managing the site.

These two manmade islands were formed from spoil material when a channel was constructed in the 1920s to connect an industrial facility at the mouth of the Alafia River with the main Tampa Bay shipping channel. Gulls, terns, and Black Skimmers immediately flocked to the islands to use the space as nesting grounds. As shrubs and trees replaced low-lying vegetation, nesting herons, egrets, ibis, and later pelicans moved from the historic nesting site at nearby Green Key.

In 2019, Audubon staff and volunteers monitored 10,000 pairs of 15 species nesting on the Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary, making it one of the largest colonies in Florida and one of the most diverse colonies in the continental United States. Today, the sanctuary also hosts one of the largest Brown Pelican breeding colonies in the Tampa Bay region. In fact, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has listed Alafia Bank as the most important colony in the state, due to its size (number of birds nesting), longevity of nesting activity, and species diversity. It has earned Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) designation.

Biologists believe that the two rehabilitated pelicans not only feed at Alafia Bank, but are also using the sanctuary to breed — repopulating after the oil spill wiped out so many other birds in nearby states. These two survivors serve as a poignant reminder of just how important Audubon Florida’s work is to the region, state, and entire Gulf of Mexico.

To continue bolstering the Brown Pelican population, Audubon Florida is investing in resilient coastlines and living shorelines to safeguard this iconic species.

Living Shorelines

A living shoreline uses rock, oyster shell, concrete substrate, or other hard material to blunt wave energy reaching the coast. The calmer waters between the barrier and the shore create new habitat, and shoreline begins to accrete. Oysters and barnacles growing on the living shoreline barriers create new and important reef systems.
“The Gulf of Mexico is one ecosystem,” says Marianne Korosy, Ph.D., Director of Bird Conservation.
“Birds can spend some or all of their lives moving across the Gulf coastlines searching for food, nesting habitat, and mates. Though most of the oiled birds appeared on Louisiana’s shores, the hundreds of thousands of birds lost directly to oil or subsequent food shortages impact populations from Florida to Texas and beyond. An oil spill along the shores of Louisiana may affect birds thousands of miles away.”

Photo: John Herrick

Mark Rachal steps into the 20-foot center console skiff, throwing rope lines back into the boat and motoring towards the Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary.

As he moves away from the boat launch, Brown Pelicans, Forster’s Terns, and Great Egrets wheel across the blue sky overhead, a testament to the importance of the bird habitat here, not only during nesting season, but year round.

As Sanctuary Manager at Alafia, Rachal is charged with inspecting nearly 5,000 feet of newly installed living shoreline breakwater arrays along the north shores of both Sunken and Bird Islands, the two islands of the Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary that comprise a state CWA.

Over the years, erosion from ship wakes and storm events threatened these nesting sites. Audubon has been working to devise a more resilient future by protecting crucial nesting islands from sea level rise as well as battering storm surges and ship wakes.

In 2011, Audubon began construction of a new living shoreline breakwater near the edge of Sunken Island. The concrete wave attenuation devices — known as WADs — that make up the breakwater intercept incoming wave energy before it hits the shoreline, slowing or even stopping erosion altogether. The calm water between the island and the breakwater provides foraging and nesting habitat. Phases 1 and 2 — encompassing 1,000 linear feet near the shore of Sunken Island — were completed in 2014.

Hurricanes have demonstrated the effectiveness of these measures; trees behind the structures survived the storm surge while those along adjacent, unprotected shorelines did not. Rachal cruises past the long-finished segments of the living shoreline to the just-completed segment along the north shore of the two islands.

In 2019, Rachal and his team worked with Living Shorelines Solutions and Cypress Gulf Development to install an additional 5,000 feet — nearly a mile! — of additional living shoreline along both Bird and Sunken Islands, bringing the total area of protected coastline to over 6,000 linear feet. Set in 500-foot sections separated by 12-foot gaps for marine animal access, the breakwater allows water to flow through to the shallow, quiet water lagoon.

Now complete, the living shoreline protects the Brown Pelicans and 14 other species, providing additional nesting habitat not only for the birds translocated after the Deepwater Horizon spill, but also for future generations born here.

Coastal Stewardship Answers Critical Questions

Collette Lauzau, Audubon Florida Shorebird Biologist, checks over her bright orange and yellow kayak one more time before slipping into the seat and nosing out of the Lanark Village Harbor. Smack in the middle of the Forgotten Coast, she sets her sights on a barrier island about a half-mile from shore and one of the most important bird breeding sites in the region: Lanark Reef Critical Wildlife Area.

Calmer waters prevail in the summer months, and the flats sit beneath a layer of shallow water. Lauzau spies young stingrays and small sharks as she paddles, keeping her eyes out for green sea turtles amidst the waving seagrasses. Once a week, she makes the 20-minute journey to the island, spending half a day counting sea and shorebirds.

“The most abundant bird nesting here is the Laughing Gull, but there are also hundreds of nesting Brown Pelicans,” Lauzau explains, “American Oystercatchers and Willets use the area, as do wading birds like Great Egrets and Tricolored Herons. My personal favorites are the Black Skimmers and the Gull-billed Terns. The Gull-billed Terns have so much attitude - they always make me laugh!”

Almost ten years before, panicked locals watched the same horizon line, shielding their eyes from the April sunshine and imagining the raft of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster headed their way. With so much gushing from the underground leak, the brown slick had already covered the Louisiana coastline, and was now making slow but steady progress towards Florida. How, and when, it would arrive remained anyone’s guess.

As crews worked frantically to plug the spill and contain the spewing oil, specialized ships skimmed as much as possible from the surface. This oil remained usable, a commodity that BP sold back to the market. The company devoted all the proceeds from these recovered oil sales to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as the Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife, jumpstarting the wildlife recovery work that has continued for a decade.

In early 2011, Audubon received a call from the fund’s administrators.

Birds had already been devastated by the oil spill. While some lucky birds recovered from oil-drenched feathers, others faced disturbance on the nesting beaches that remained, and scores of additional birds struggled to find sustenance in the wake of the disaster that effectively sealed their food supply in gunk. The grants from the Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife were available now to start mitigating the blows to wildlife. Audubon Florida’s Executive Director Julie Wraithmell, then the Director of Wildlife Conservation, had just the project.

Lanark Reef stretches for six miles along the Gulf coast, partially submerged and partially made up of barrier islands and sand bars. Because the State of Florida conveyed the islands into private ownership in the 1950s, the precious 3-acre upland beach nesting habitat remained vulnerable to development. In fact, one such owner was determined to develop the last parcel on the island into condos — all but guaranteeing elimination of sea and shorebirds nesting there.

With a grant from the Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife, Audubon stepped in, purchasing the three acres of upland for $50,000 in 2012 and assigning staff and volunteers to monitor the species that used the island. Together with the adjacent Dog Island, Audubon gained a Globally Important Bird Area (IBA) designation.

Lanark Reef. Photo: Collette Lauzau

The Lanark Reef-Dog Island IBA is now one of the most important wintering shorebird areas in Florida, especially for Piping Plovers, American Oystercatchers, and mixed flocks of migratory shorebirds. Lanark Reef was ranked as the biologically most important site in Florida for winter shorebirds. Lanark Reef also supports breeding Brown Pelicans, wading birds, American Oystercatchers, and seabirds. In the early 1990s, a banding station at Jeff Lewis Wilderness Preserve on Dog Island recorded large numbers of neotropical migrants, including over 6,000 Gray Catbirds in a single day. The bird list for Dog Island is 274 native and three exotic species.

Additionally, Audubon partnered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to designate Lanark Reef as a Critical Wildlife Area, preventing landings by all boats except those expressly permitted by the FWC. Though the birds of Lanark Reef could still face impacts from the oil spill if they traveled throughout the wider Gulf of Mexico, at least these nesting grounds would remain protected.

When Lauzau and her team visit the island to continue monitoring the sea and shorebird nesting efforts, they add their data to counts across the state of Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico. Working together, Audubon staff and state and federal researchers can monitor shifting population centers while protecting the areas these birds need to breed.

“The disaster was just that — a disaster, for birds and for people,” explains Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director of Audubon Florida.
“No one benefits from a disaster that affects an entire ecosystem like this. The opportunity we have now to make the Gulf a better place came at a dear cost — the lives of the 11 people who died in the explosion, as well as the wildlife and habitats that were affected. We owe it to everyone to make sure the Gulf is restored properly and this never happens again.”

Photo: Wilson's Plovers by Jean Hall.

Continued Monitoring Across Florida

It’s a hot and steamy morning in the Florida Panhandle, more than 200 miles west of Lanark Reef. Cars whiz by Audubon Anchor Steward Moira Conley as she stands at the edge of the Navarre Bridge, the only major thoroughfare connecting this barrier island with the mainland for miles in either direction.

From her vantage point, she can easily see the waves of the Santa Rosa Sound crashing against the concrete barriers of the causeway, and just about make out the undulating dunes that border the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Even at the early hour, the summer traffic is intense, both visitors and locals alike heading towards the beach. On this particular bridge, the din and breezes created by the traffic mix with another, uniquely Florida sound: the calls of a seabird colony.

Beach-nesting birds face risky odds each season as they scoop out shallow nests in the sand with little to no cover or protection from predators. Coming together in large, multi-species colonies affords seabirds with protection in numbers. The colonies are chaperoned by Audubon bird stewards who are funded by grants originating in the Deepwater Horizon settlement and aided by the Audubon Florida coastal team, volunteers, as well as sea and shorebird partners across the state.

For centuries, birds have spread out across our sparsely populated beaches and dunes, but today they compete for space with development and beachgoers, while facing ongoing threats from native predators as well as feral cats, intense storms, and red tide. In an effort to aid the beach nesters, Audubon Florida’s 24-person coastal team uses grants flowing from the Deepwater Horizon settlement to protect, survey, and manage 166 beach and tree-nesting sites and 139 rooftop-nesting sites. In 2019, more than 760 volunteers generously invested over 8,000 hours in bird stewardship and public outreach to protect vulnerable colonies and to clean up beach trash and hurricane debris.

Conley at Navarre Bridge. Photo: Erika Zambello

Conley takes out her data form as she adjusts her steaming sunglasses. A seasonal bird steward, Conley was in her second summer with Audubon and the Navarre colonies, which are focused on the bridge but include pockets of nesting on the barrier island and the nearby border of Gulf Islands National Seashore. At first glance, the bridge appears to be a terrible place for vulnerable chicks, barely the size of ping-pong balls as they hatch out of eggs perfectly camouflaged in the sand.

The sides of the bridge slope gently to the seawalls below, and Audubon has erected a small fence to keep wandering chicks from the road. Still, adults facing strong winds can be buffeted straight into oncoming traffic when they take flight, and more than a few are killed each year through accidental collisions. Tufts of grass here and there provide the only relief from the hot sun, other than the shade from the concrete barriers, themselves. And yet, the thriving colony demonstrates that the site has distinct advantages that draw Black Skimmers and Least Terns here year after year.

Because of the heavy traffic, few people actually walk on the edges of the bridge, which reduces the chances of them wandering into the colony and accidentally stepping on the eggs. Moreover, predators — including cats, coyotes, raccoons, and crabs — don’t make the journey across the highway, leaving the young chicks less vulnerable. Finally, because some of the colonies lie along Santa Rosa Sound instead of the along the Gulf, they face fewer risks from storm surges and damaging offshore winds.

In 2019, Black Skimmers here fledged 52 chicks. With long, orange bills attached to black and white bodies, it’s nearly impossible to mistake this seabird for any other species. Mixed in, Least Terns — which fledged at least 10 chicks that year — appear like tiny gulls, delicate and graceful with black caps and bright yellow bills. Skimmer chicks learn from their parents how to feed in the shallow waves.

It was just before the July Fourth weekend, the biggest holiday of the year on Florida beaches. Though the official fireworks in this area are shot offshore, people bring their illegal, personal fireworks much closer. The constant noise and explosions cause the adult birds to spook from their nests again, and again, and again, expending valuable energy while leaving chicks and young birds alone and frightened. Conley — along with 35 other volunteers — patrolled the edge of the colony until night (and quiet) finally settled on the bridge, shepherding the chicks back into the colony and watching for people who approached too closely. The Navarre Beach colony lost no birds to fireworks last year.

After Conley counts all the chicks and adults, noting the weather and general traffic conditions, she stops to talk to a jogger. While her work protecting the birds is critical, her outreach to those who ask questions is equally important.

People have long felt an affinity for our avian friends, yearning for their freedom in the skies. Each person Conley speaks with about the importance of the colony — and what they can do to help — is one more advocate for these vulnerable birds. Many are inspired to become bird stewards here or elsewhere.

With funding from the BP oil spill penalties, better protection during busy summer beach seasons, like that created by Conley and her fellow stewards, bolsters the very sea and shorebird populations devastated by the oil spill.

Black Skimmers on Navarre Bridge. Photo: Erika Zambello

Protection Works: New Nesting Sites on Florida’s Coast

Northeast Florida is far from the epicenter of the Deepwater Horizon disaster but clearly still affected by the dispersing oil, as confirmed by a 2020 study reported in the Washington Post. Past protections and new monitoring in 2019 meant a successful summer breeding season for the first time in recent memory at Little Talbot Island. In addition to Black Skimmers and Least Terns, Northeast Florida provides nesting habitat for American Oystercatchers, Gull-billed Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, and Snowy Plovers.

The sand-strewn beach along Little Talbot Island is one of the few places remaining on Florida’s Atlantic coast with no buildings and few roads in sight. Located just south of Amelia Island where Nassau County and Duval County meet, the emergent sands within Nassau Sound have long provided the perfect topography for beach-nesting birds, with direct access to fish and no trees to harbor predators. In the summer of 2019, Little Talbot Island experienced one of the most successful nesting seasons in recent memory.

Unfortunately, nesting success here has been stymied in recent years because the same gorgeous beaches that attract the birds also attract people. Despite its remoteness and previous attempts to provide a nesting-area buffer, the northern end of Little Talbot Island has been a favorite recreational spot for thousands of beachgoers and boaters each year, especially when waters are warm and beach-nesting birds are trying to raise their young.

Thanks to the dedication of the Timucuan Shorebird Partnership, which includes staff and volunteers from Audubon Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Park Service, and the City of Jacksonville, beach-bird nesting failure at Little Talbot Island may not be an annual disappointment.

“The nesting success on Little Talbot Island this year was the result of many years of effort,” explains Chris Farrell, Audubon’s Northeast Florida Policy Associate.

Decades ago, thousands of birds used the emergent islands in Nassau Sound, but human disturbance has reduced their nesting habitat. With fewer areas capable of supporting imperiled beach-nesting birds, protection of the remaining nesting sites became paramount. Recognizing the need for additional management tools, Audubon collaborated with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to both renew and enlarge the Critical Wildlife Area designation for beach-nesting bird habitat in Nassau Sound.

Audubon's coastal team showcases that the protective efforts put forth on Lanark Reef and the Navarre bridge allow existing colonies to thrive. But additional conservation initiatives can create new nesting sites as well.

Photo: Least Tern by Erika Zambello.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) program is one way the state provides extra protection for concentrations of wildlife where there is the greatest exposure to human disturbance. CWAs are discrete sites, such as mangrove islands or sandbars, where species gather daily or seasonally for essential activities, such as breeding, feeding, or resting.

In 2015, Audubon started to work closely with FWC and other stakeholders to reestablish this protection for Little Talbot Island. Audubon’s Chris Farrell, FWC staff, and long-time advocate Pat Leary presented information on the importance of the sound for nesting birds during FWC’s local stakeholder meetings.

On November 16, 2016, they got good news: the old “Bird Islands” CWA was redesignated as the “Nassau Sound Islands” CWA in the vote that created 13 new CWAs in the state and improved five existing ones. The most critical aspect of the redesignation was the inclusion of the northern tip of Little Talbot Island.

Little Talbot is ideal habitat for beach-nesting birds and has long been the site of nesting attempts by Least Terns and American Oystercatchers. These attempts yielded few fledged chicks, if any. Park staff marked off the nesting habitat each year, but they could never post an area large enough to prevent disturbance to the birds for fear of losing signs to the dynamic tides of the region.

Fortunately, the new CWA designation brought additional resources and focus to this nesting site. The most impactful change was the addition of seven large “No Landing” signs installed around the breeding area to let boaters know they could not disembark near the nesting birds.

Additionally, Audubon Florida and FWC have hired seasonal staff to steward this remote nesting site, where it can be difficult to recruit help from volunteers. FWC also produced informational postcards explaining the closure of the nesting area with details on its location and a map. Park rangers hand out cards at the station, as do stewards when speaking with visitors on-site.

Continued efforts, including meeting with local outfitters, installing signs at boat ramps, and outreach programs, are helping to improve compliance with the CWA closure. Audubon Anchor Stewards and CWA biologists have been critical in this regard, handling more than 150 boat landings and speaking with over 500 people at the nesting site in 2019 alone.

American Oystercatchers. Photo: Jesse Gordon

The cumulative result of these partnership efforts has been a significant increase in nesting success by several species. Least Terns, which managed to fledge a few chicks from the site last year, made more than 100 nests in 2019 with dozens of chicks fledging. The big surprise in 2019? The return of sizable numbers of nesting Black Skimmers and Gull-billed Terns. Skimmers made a whopping 30 nests, and at least 25 chicks survived. Gull-billed Terns had more than 20 nests and many successful offspring. Four pairs of American Oystercatchers also produced young, with Wilson’s Plovers rounding out the list of successful nesters at this site, bringing the total number of species to five.

Farrell notes, “The positive response from multiple species is a testament to how improved management can benefit our beach-nesting birds. Hard work from our partners at Little Talbot Island State Park and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission made 2019 a successful nesting season at the Nassau Sound Islands CWA and should inspire others to replicate their success.”

This example serves as a model for how partners can work together to make positive strides after an environmental crisis like an oil spill. Nesting success in 2019 and in future seasons will create a population buffer for the inevitable stresses of climate change and potential future oil spills.

As we progress into the 21st century, sea level rise threatens to swamp the narrow strip of beach and dune habitat that birds need to survive. Oil spills that coat the shoreline not only impede nesting, but also can poison adult birds and coat their feathers with toxic crude. By investing in conservation and bird stewardship now, Audubon works to create a more secure future for some of Florida’s most iconic species.

Photo: Jean Hall

Into the Future

We must extend the drilling moratorium to protect our coastlines.

Florida’s biggest economic driver is not tourism, or agriculture, or even development. The most important engines in our economic system remain the vast military bases that call our Florida coastlines home, helping to train men and women across the Navy, Air Force, Army, and more. In fact, the military is directly responsible for nearly $85 billion in economic impact annually. Expanded drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico not only threatens our marine resources and wildlife populations, it also threatens to drive base closures and impact America’s military readiness, which is already under duress from rising sea levels.

In an op-ed, Congressman Francis Rooney explains:

“The Eastern Gulf is home to the Gulf Test Range, a 120,000 square mile range that stretches from the Florida Panhandle to Key West. This unimpeded flight training and testing area is of critical importance to our military now and will become even more important in the future, as hypersonic planes and drone testing increase. Our military has no better location to carry out these exercises and there is no compelling reason to place drilling interests ahead of military necessities.”

Initially enacted by President George W. Bush, the moratorium halts drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico until 2022. Safeguarding the waters closest to the Sunshine State, the moratorium protects the open Gulf, critical to the safe operation of military planes, in addition to our thriving seafood, charter, and tourism industries. Beyond the moratorium’s boundaries, more than 2,500 active leases and 3,200 active drilling platforms operate, providing a solemn window into the future if the moratorium is not extended past 2022.

Most Floridians support a ban on offshore drilling. In the 2018 election, 68% voted to ban offshore drilling as part of Amendment 9. However, without an extension of the moratorium, rigs and wells could be drilled as close as nine nautical miles to Florida’s shoreline.

In 2019, the United States House of Representatives passed HR 205, which extends the moratorium indefinitely east of the Military Mission Line. By a vote of 248 to 180, the House made clear its commitment to protecting the vast resources of the Gulf of Mexico from the ever-present danger that oil exploration brings in its wake. As the United States is now an oil exporter, there is no need to disturb fragile habitat and military readiness for the sake of additional exploration and extraction.

Now the Senate must take up the case, and needs 60 votes to extend the moratorium before the measure can land on the president’s desk. Both senators from Florida are leading the charge on this legislation, with state representatives, municipalities, nonprofits, and concerned citizens creating the momentum for permanent protection.

Lanark Reef. Photo: Collette Lauzau
Ten years have passed since the BP oil spill, and we are still on the road to recovery. The Deepwater Horizon disaster showcased not only the havoc one event can wreak across the Gulf of Mexico, but also the resilience of native bird species and coastal communities. At Audubon, we see a future grounded in research and science, where sea and shorebirds nest in colonies that wow locals and visitors alike but are protected from disturbance. We see a future where the Gulf’s beauties are enjoyed by all and its waters are off-limits to additional oil explorations. Climate change and sea level rise remain critical threats to our shoreline, but together we can work across state lines to create a better future for birds and people.