For the Birds Radio Program: BP Oil Spill: Oiled Northern Gannets

Original Air Date: Aug. 19, 2010

Why are so many Northern Gannets being oiled in the Gulf? Don’t ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative.

Duration: 4′58″


When I was a fairly new birder and my husband Russ was working on his Ph.D., he spent a few weeks on an oceanographic vessel in the Atlantic Ocean. When he came home, he told me about a cool bird they saw frequently out in the deep water far from shore. This bird was large and heavy, and would fly up high and then form an arrow shape as it plunged straight into the water. I was filled with envy that he’d seen Northern Gannets before I ever did. We took a family vacation to Florida in 1988, when our children were little, and the one day we spent on a beach on the Atlantic, Russ played with the kids while I kept my spotting scope trained on the horizon. It took two hours, but I finally got a glimpse of gannets out there. Even at a great distance, I could easily identify them by that wonderful diving behavior.

Northern Gannets live up to their name, breeding on islands in the North Atlantic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They raise one chick per year, and it takes them 4-5 years to reach maturity. The young birds move south, to the middle Atlantic regions including the Gulf of Mexico. Under the best of circumstances, mortality is high thanks to that high-diving lifestyle—if they aren’t out deep enough, they can crash into rocks. And we humans aren’t committed to giving them the best of circumstances, so gannets also get entangled in nets, they still face some persecution from fishermen, and this year, they face a new crisis. Most of the birds collected alive or dead from BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have been Northern Gannets—and virtually all young ones.

The “Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report” updated daily by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rehab centers, and BP, doesn’t provide the numbers for individual species, so there is no way people can find out which species are most at risk, but when I went to the rehab center near Mobile, Alabama, during a session open to the media on August 5, the two birds we saw being treated were both immature gannets, and the rehabber and the Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman both said that most of the birds that have been brought in have been gannets. They also said, upon questioning, that gannets continue to be brought in at the same rate as they were at the beginning of the oil spill. One reporter asked why so many gannets are affected, and the Fish and Wildlife Service agent said nobody seems to know. He gave no information about gannets, probably because he wasn’t familiar with them.

The International Bird Rescue Research Center is the organization that has been put in charge of rehab by BP—they’re based in California so they have a lot of experience dealing with oiled birds, but can’t be expected to know the many differences between the species composition of the Gulf’s avifauna and that off the California Coast. But somehow I expected the US Fish and Wildlife Service to know, or be able to look up, a few basic facts about the species most obviously affected by the oil spill. The young birds stay far enough out in the water that they aren’t easily seen from shore without some effort—most of the media at our session had never heard of them before. Gannet plunge diving brings them into contact with a lot of water—if there are plumes of oil, methane, and/or dispersants out there, individual gannets have a high likelihood of hitting one sooner or later. That fact does require one to accept the continued existence of oil out there, something BP and the federal agencies responding to the spill seem reluctant to acknowledge. It’s frustrating that the relative numbers of each species being treated are not available, but if birds diving into deeper waters are the species still being oiled…well, I can think of only one explanation for that.