Galveston Bay is home to robust land and marine life that are now in danger after an oil spill Saturday dumped 168,000 gallons of oil into the Houston Ship Channel.
"The wildlife is most impacted when it encounters thick oil. That is why our focus remains on the removal of that oil," said Capt. Brian Penoyer of the U.S. Coast Guard Houston/Galveston and Federal On-scene Coordinator for the spill response.
One of the most at risk wildlife is birds. At a press conference Monday afternoon, a spokesperson with the Texas General Land Office reported five birds are undergoing rehabilitation.
"Surprisingly, we haven't had a lot of wildlife affected," said Richard Arnhart, Texas General Land Office Regional director and State On-scene Coordinator. "I think that has to do with the fact there was prompt response."
However, they also reported three birds were found dead, covered in oil. Responders expect to find more oiled birds and are already setting up sites and triage centers in anticipation of more affected animals.
One of the potential hotspots is Boliver Flats, which is a refuge for birds.
Teams of biologists also checked eastern Galveston Island, Pelican Island and the Bolivar Peninsula for affected wildlife Monday.
If they do find oiled birds, Arnhart said they will be taken to a triage center at the Texas City Dike. At that point, an assessment will be conducted and the wildlife will be sent to Baytown, where the Texas General Land Bird Rehabilitation and Husbandry trailer is and the animal will cleaned and dealt with there.
Birds may also be found in areas that aren't impacted by the oil spill because some can still move when they have encountered oil.
If you come across a bird, you are asked not to touch it. Call the Wildlife Response Service at 888-384-2000.
Oil Could Also Harm Fish And Other Sea Life
Creatures under the water may also be affected by the spill as the oil could have a negative impact on the food chain.
"Galveston is home to all the basses of the food chain like shrimp and crab. Redfish, flounder, all of them start in the bay," said Kirsten Stokes, a Texas A&M Galveston graduate student studying Marine Resource Management.
Tom Linton, a professor at TAMU Galveston, compared Galveston Bay to a nursery.
The bay's ecosystem includes wetlands where many animals are born and stay until maturity before heading out to sea.
"You wouldn't want [the oil] to get on grasses and cover up creatures that are buried in the mud," Linton said. "All the little organisms make that a very productive area. It could kill off the grass and smother out the buried creatures in the mud."
The oil doesn't only need to attach itself to animals to cause harm. Just by sitting on the water's surface it can affect the oyster population. The already suffering oyster population could take a hit if its food supply is affected.
Jeff Frazier, TAMU Galveston graduate student and SEAS Team member, explained that the oil would make the water less transparent and therefore let in less sunlight. Without the sunlight, the oyster's food of phytoplankton (free-swimming algae) can't grow.
"Without that transparency, it negatively affects the population," said Fraizier.
Then there are the rocks around the edge of the bay and at the Texas City Dike where blue crabs are attracted to.
"If oil washes up, it could collect on rocks," said Linton. "What would be affected are things that live in the nooks and crannies, like barnacles and crabs."
"The blue crab industry is a viable part of the economy in that area," said Robert Webster, TAMU Galveston doctoral student. "Losing that population would affect that relationship with the fisheries. Then, of course, lack of food source would force fish to go somewhere else."
Webster adds during the spring flounder arrive at the bay.
As of now, responders say they are ready to take care of the wildlife, but they have not issued any health advisories. Even without an official declaration, they still urge fishermen to stay away from the oil spill zone.