SARANAC LAKE - Michael Martin traveled to the Louisiana coastline last month expecting to help assess the environmental impact of the largest oil spill ever to hit the Gulf of Mexico.
But, with an estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day still spewing into the Gulf, it will be some time before the full impact of the massive spill can be measured.
Given that situation, Martin was put into an entirely different role when he arrived in Grand Isle, La., a barrier island along the coast due south of New Orleans.
An orange boom coated with oil sits in the water just off shore from a pelican rookery on Grand Isle, La.
(Photo — Michael Martin)
"It's so early on in the spill stage at this point that we're really not in assessment mode; we're still in rescue mode," said Martin, an environmental scientist and president of Cedar Eden Environmental, a Saranac Lake-based environmental consulting firm. "When I got down there, I ended up working with state and federal fish and wildlife folks in capturing oiled birds."
Martin spent two-and-a-half weeks on the Gulf Coast, most of it on a boat trying to catch pelicans covered in oil from the spill, which was triggered by the sinking of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drill rig on April 22. Martin said he's never done wildlife rescue work before, but that wasn't a prerequisite for the job.
"It's pretty easy to teach somebody how to catch a pelican," he said. "They're looking for folks with expertise to deal with that sort of situation, to adapt what they know to the situation down there."
The opportunity came up, he said, through contacts he's made in the environmental field over the years. Martin wasn't a volunteer; he was getting paid by BP, albeit indirectly.
"I was working through a company that was working through a company that works for BP," he said. "BP has an environmental division that was contracting with a number of large consulting firms. So when they put a call out, my name came up."
Having never been to the Gulf Coast before, Martin said he eagerly accepted the job.
"I always wanted to see the Mississippi Delta, of course not quite under this circumstance," he said. "It definitely wasn't a site-seeing trip. You see something like that and you want to be involved, and that was the major reason for going."
When Martin arrived in Grand Isle, one of the first things he noticed was that most of the oceanfront homes on the island were vacant.
"That's what struck me first is you had all these homes that would normally be rented out, and virtually all of them were empty," he said. "Some of them were filled with folks like myself who were down there working on one mission or another, but most were empty."
On a typical day, Martin said he would get up around 5 a.m., assemble his gear and be ready for a morning meeting at 6 a.m. The 10 boats responsible for wildlife rescue along a 40- by 20-mile stretch of coastline would be assigned a specific area to patrol that day. Each boat would include an environmental consultant like Martin, a representative of either the state or U.S. fish and wildlife agencies and a captain. Most of the boats were operated by charter and shrimp boat captains who have been put out of business by the spill, Martin said.
"We were on the water by 7 a.m. and off the water by 5 p.m.," he said. "We'd do a debriefing, get dinner, shower and have an hour or so to catch up on email, then it was off to bed. They were long, long days."
The best place to find oiled birds wasn't in the Gulf itself, Martin said, it was on inland waterways.
"One of the reasons why is that pelicans, like any other animal that's injured or sick, tend to look for cover," he said. "So they would come inland from the gulf, and either hunker down on the island or sit around on a pier or a piling."
Martin said the hardest part about capturing an injured pelican was identifying the ones that are oiled. Adult pelicans typically have a white head and breast feathers, so it's easy to tell if they're oiled. But younger or immature pelicans are usually brown.
"You had to be able to distinguish between the brown of an immature adult and the brownish black of an oiled bird," Martin said. "But typically you could tell. They couldn't groom their feathers nice and smooth so they had kind of a raggedy look."
To capture an oiled pelican, Martin and his colleagues would first try to get the bird to fly and then land in the water. The oil in the water would cause the bird's down feathers to get matted up and water-logged, making it easier to catch.
"If we could get them in the water, we'd let them sit about 15 minutes so they would take up weight and the next time they'd fly they'd tire very easily," he said. "Then it's just a matter of scooping them up in a big net, very carefully.
"Once you've caught them in the net, you'd do a quick check. If they have oil in their mouth that's visible you try to wipe that out. Then you put them in a pet carrier and bring them back to a central triage area. At that point, the veterinarians and their assistants would take over. They'd do triage - clean them up a little better and give them something to help flush oil out of their system. Once they're stabilized, they'd be sent off to a facility for long-term rehabilitation."
Martin said most of the birds he helped rescue were only light to moderately oiled, although that wasn't always the case. He recalled capturing a heavily-oiled pelican that was standing in an area of accumulated oil along the shoreline.
"The worst was a couple of seagulls we found almost by accident," he said. "They were so heavily oiled and sick that you could just pick them up by hand. Those were the really tough moments."
A U.S. government wildlife impact assessment in late June showed that 1,024 birds, 407 sea turtles and 47 marine mammals had been found dead along the Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. Nearly 900 animals had been recovered alive, but less than a hundred had so far been returned to the wild.
While he didn't get to talk to many locals during his two-and-a-half weeks on the coast, Martin said he spent a lot of time with two boat captains, one of whom had lived on the Gulf for generations.
"They're getting paid to operate their boats, but it's nowhere near what they'd make as commercial fishermen," he said. "You can really tell that it's something that kind of breaks their heart. They recognize that this is a long-term thing, that there may be a shrimp harvest again in a year, but nothing's going to be the same for a very long time."
Martin's first trip to assist with the clean-up effort won't be his last. He's currently assembling a team of biologists to travel to the beaches of Mississippi and Alabama to ensure that crews working at night don't disturb wildlife, mainly nesting sea turtles and several species of endangered dune mice.
"I'd like to be involved over the long term, because I'd like to see how it plays out and develops," Martin said. "There's going to be a lot of need for wildlife rescue for some time, but there will also be a need to evaluate long-term impacts and look at restoration efforts and seeing how well they succeed."
Contact Chris Knight at (518) 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.