Reporting from Grand Isle, La.—Hundreds of brown pelicans are doing what they always do on Cat Island in the spring: wheeling above the mangroves, nesting and jostling for space on this noisy rookery a few miles off the Louisiana coast.
A year after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and unleashing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, life on Cat seems pretty much back to normal, as it does in most of the Gulf of Mexico environment.
But when Todd Baker takes a close look, he sees that not all is right. Before the spill, "this was a lush green island; you couldn't see the ground," recalled Baker, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The black mangrove bushes on which pelicans build nests are thin and scraggly, damaged by the oil that sloshed over the two-acre island. A strip of the plants disappeared, wiped out by a loose, wave-driven boom set by spill cleanup crews. It plowed through the dense stand like a bulldozer, destroying nesting perches.
Nests built on the newly exposed sand could be washed away in storms. If the mangroves don't recover, more of the island will erode, imperiling the rookery.
The northern gulf's brown pelican population didn't escape the spill unscathed. But precisely how it was affected, Baker said, "we don't know yet."
The monster spill's toll on the gulf environment is turning out to be more subtle — and at this point, elusive — than was feared whenBP's blown-out well spit light crude into mile-deep waters for three long months.
Beaches that were coated last summer with a rusty-colored goo, the product of oil and toxic chemical dispersants, are clean. As of Tuesday, all federal waters had been reopened to fishing. Only a small fraction of ocean and sediment samples taken by the federal government found oil compounds at levels harmful to aquatic life.