Urgent Action to Save Gulf Wildlife
On April 20, 2010, an environmental disaster erupted in the Gulf of Mexico, with devastating implications for North America’s richest marine ecosytem. The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which eventually released an estimated five million barrels of crude oil into Gulf waters, occurred only weeks before the sea turtle nesting season, and just prior to the seasonal migrations of more than one billion birds.
Drawing on more than two decades of experience in the Gulf, the Foundation immediately engaged its long-standing network of conservation partners operating in the region. NFWF convened its own experts, representatives from federal and state agencies and leading biologists, assembling a portfolio of projects to protect imperiled wildlife. The strategy targeted species most at risk — sea turtles, shore birds, water birds and migratory waterfowl — and stressed immediate action to reduce losses.
As the damaged well continued to leak and discussions on how to address the catastrophe continued, BP announced a plan to donate net revenues from oil recovered from the site to help protect wildlife populations. It chose NFWF to administer the fund. The Foundation quickly launched the priority projects it had identified, using an initial commitment of $10 million from BP and an additional $2.25 million from corporate partner Walmart.
- 278 sea turtle nests excavated and relocated from spill zone
- 25,000 sea turtle eggs transported from the gulf coast to cape canaveral
- 800–900 sea turtles estimated to be saved annually by NFWF gulf response projects
Sea turtles in the Gulf, already endangered, were an early focus. Projects that addressed ongoing threats to their populations, including nest disturbances by predators, beach erosion and light pollution, were quickly accelerated by the Sea Turtle Conservancy, a NFWF partner since 2001. The Conservancy also allocated funds to help supply and expand 12 permitted turtle rehabilitation services across Florida — funding that effectively doubled the capacity for treating sick or injured sea turtles statewide.
“Absolutely everything we did was new and not possible before,” said David Godfrey, the conservancy’s executive director. “We needed to improve survivorship and reduce turtle mortality on Florida beaches, where 90 percent of all sea turtle nesting [in the U.S.] takes place. And our actions will have a multiplier effect. This year’s hatchlings are going to grow up, come back to nest and gradually grow the population.”
On the shores of Alabama and northwestern Florida, federal and state officials confronted an unprecedented challenge: sea turtle hatchlings emerging from newly-laid eggs faced certain danger from oil contamination in the Gulf. Federal officials contacted NFWF, who called on corporate partner FedEx for in-kind assistance in shipping the eggs to the Atlantic coast of Florida. Over the next five weeks, FedEx’s Custom Critical service safely delivered more than 25,000 turtle eggs (the contents of 278 nests) to Cape Canaveral, where they were incubated and successfully released. Elsewhere along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, NFWF invested in projects to prevent the accidental capture of sea turtles by commercial fisheries — the leading cause of death for turtles, and one preventable through improvements to fishing gear.
As the crisis moved into its third month, NFWF and its partners began an initiative to establish alternative habitats for birds migrating towards the spill zone. Their aim was to provide 100,000 acres — a goal that was surpassed five-fold, with projects that extended across eight states.
By the end of August, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies and private organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Mississippi Wildlife were enrolling Gulf-area farmers and landowners in programs that used cropland or restored degraded wetlands to provide habitat and food sources for migrating birds. National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation, Texas R.I.C.E., Alabama Wildlife Federation and others joined the effort.
Farmer Glenray Trahan, who raises rice and cattle in southwestern Louisiana, flooded close to 2,000 acres with spectacular results. “We were in the middle of a drought down here and the marshes were dry. We knocked the stubble down and started flooding on the 25th of August, and we had more blue-winged teal than I had seen [in 65 years],” he recalls. “And when the big duck season started, we had more pintails and green-winged teals than I’d ever seen. We couldn’t have done it without the funds we got from [NFWF grantee] Ducks Unlimited and NRCS,” he adds.
Investments by Walmart filled a crucial gap by establishing wetland habitat areas on federal and state wildlife refuges — public lands that provide the highest value for bird life around the Gulf. All told, through November 2010, the first phase of projects established nearly 200,000 acres of alternative habitat for birds and served as the catalyst for federal agencies to enhance and flood additional lands, creating a total of more than 500,000 acres.
NFWF’s Gulf response continues. At the end of 2010, the Foundation began a second phase of funding that will invest an additional $10 million for projects to bolster wildlife and habitat most affected by the spill. The benefits for Gulf species will endure long after initial damage from the largest oil spill in U.S. history has passed.