Gulf Coast birds get $35 million in help from BP oil spill settlement

11 projects will restore ecosystems across five states and parts of Mexico

A Little Blue Heron tends to her chicks at a rookery on Jefferson Island in the Atchafalaya Basin. (Photo by Tim Mueller via the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area).

The Deepwater Horizon Trustees on Monday announced nearly $100 million in new Gulf Coast restoration projects for ecosystems destroyed or injured by the BP oil spill. Specifically, the projects aim to rebuild and protect habitats for sea turtles, marine mammals, oysters, and birds across the five states and parts of Mexico impacted by the BP oil spill, including a nearly $35 million bird stewardship project in four states.

Funding for the projects came from the $20 billion settlement BP paid to federal and state governments for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and subsequently released 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 consecutive days. Much of that oil that washed onto the shores of Louisiana and other states, killing massive numbers of wildlife species, including an estimated 1 million birds, according to the National Audubon Society. 

Notably, the BP oil spill killed 12 percent of the Brown Pelican population, according to a study by J. Christopher Haney, Harold Geiger, and Jeffrey Short published in Marine Ecology Progress Series in 2014, which compiled and analyzed data on species-specific deaths from the oil spill. In addition to the Brown Pelicans, the oil killed 36 percent of the entire Laughing Gull population in the northern Gulf of Mexico and 15 percent of the Royal Tern population.

The Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees selected 11 projects to restore and protect coastal and marine ecology of the Gulf Coast, following scientific research and public input. Among them is the nearly $35 million Bird Nesting and Foraging Area Stewardship project proposed by the National Audubon Society. The project will support coastal bird stewardship across four Gulf states — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

“Audubon is thrilled to see this suite of projects that will protect, restore and enhance the places that birds need to survive and thrive” said Kara Fox, director of Gulf coast restoration at the National Audubon Society. “These projects are critical investments given the unprecedented injury to birds in the wake of the BP oil disaster.”

A 2021 study led by Audubon’s Science team found that stewardship is an essential component of any restoration project or recovery program. Seabirds and shorebirds are vulnerable to predators, boaters, and beachgoers, and Coastal Bird Stewardship Programs are essential to helping many coastal birds thrive, the Audubon’s press release said. 

Other projects to support birds include restoring, protecting, and managing critical nesting islands like Chester Island in Texas, the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana, Round Island in Mississippi, and Dauphin Island in Alabama. Threatened by increasing storms and sea-level rise, these islands are a safe haven for thousands of nesting birds like Reddish Egret, Brown Pelican, Snowy Plover, and American Oystercatcher. Migratory birds like Red Knot and Piping Plover also rely on these low-lying islands during their flights up and down the Central and Mississippi Flyways.

Another restoration project will identify and remove marine debris at key hotspots on the Gulf Coast, where birds and sea turtles are at risk of ingesting or getting entangled in marine debris such as discarded fishing line, nets, and traps.

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