OUR News and updates
Study of marine birds in the Gulf of Mexico achieves unprecedented milestone
Gulf of Mexico,
Long neglected as a study area for marine birds, the Gulf of Mexico gained more attention during and after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout. After Bird Study 6 during that oil spill covered 15,000 km at sea and collected more than 950 hours of observational data, it was obvious that the Gulf contained a significant diversity and number of seabirds throughout the calendar year. In part based on those findings, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management launched in 2017 the Gulf of Mexico Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, a project that focused not only on seabirds but marine mammals and sea turtles as well.
Sometime in early 2018, on a vessel survey directed by Terra Mar, GoMMAPPS became the most extensive survey of Gulf marine birds ever, surpassing the earlier record held by Bird Study 6 after Deepwater Horizon. As of mid-2019, GoMMAPPS had surveyed over a total distance of >36,000 km in offshore waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico, collecting more than 2,000 hours of key data for more than 40 bird species. Already doubling the effort of what was the largest Gulf study just 7 years ago, GoMMAPPS could have the distinction of surpassing the circumference of the entire planet (40,075 km) in total distance surveyed.
For more information about the purpose behind and the achievements from the GoMMAPPS project, please visit https://www.boem.gov/GOMMAPPS/
© Mind Management for Better Decisions
Terra Mar has designed and is now offering brand new instructional training on how to avoid the costly penalties from mental deception in everyday life. This multi-part, 36-hour program will provide individuals, teams, and organizations the skills needed to carry out more accurate decisions in business, professional, and personal realms. We use a participatory style of instruction that emphasizes the reduction of false certainty that so easily leads us into cognitive mistakes and mental blunders. The course format features a variety of interactive and participatory exercises, multi-media presentations, team-driven competitions among attendees, critical readings, and group discussions. © Mind Management for Better Decisions is tailored for professionals in such diverse fields as environmental and natural resource management, conservation, research, public policy, education, economics, and international affairs and finance. Don't let your quest for certainty lead you astray!
Restoring Audubon's shearwaters and Allen Cays rock iguanas in the Bahama Islands
Exuma Islands, Bahamas
Dr. Will Mackin was the lead investigator for a grant awarded to The Bahamas National Trust from the Recovered Oil Fund of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore ecological integrity to Allen Cay in the Exuma Islands, Bahamas. Restoration activities were aimed at removing non-native mice from Allen Cay and disrupting nesting activities by barn owls Tyto alba near the island so that populations of Audubon shearwaters Puffinus lherminieri could recover. In addition, endangered Allen Cays rock iguanas Cyclura cychlura inornata were removed to a safe location during the mice removal, and additional nesting areas for the iguanas were constructed by filling several sinkholes with sand. Will and his project team met or exceeded the metrics that had been established for the project, including removing the mice, creating new breeding habitat for the iguanas, and sharply dropping the death rate for the shearwaters. "More info" about the project's restoration successes can be accessed by clicking on the button at right.
GoMMAPPS launches Gulf surveys
This year Terra Mar started training and placing expert seabird observers to collect key environmental data for the Gulf of Mexico Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, or GoMMAPPS. Our first research deployment occurred from 28 April to 30 May 2017, when three GoMMAPPS observers accompanied NOAA scientists during the SEAMAP spring icthyoplankton survey conducted aboard the R/V Oregon II based at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Pascagoula, MS. Three observers counted for a total of approximately 180 hours across 25 calendar days during which the ship was in transit across the Gulf. In addition to widespread coverage, especially the seldom visited, deeper waters far from the continental shelf, observers detected no fewer than 25 species of pelagic, offshore, and coastal marine birds, as well as at least 7 species of cetaceans, two sea turtle species, and various other biota. Notably, this spring survey also detected several rare seabird species for which their Gulf status has been heretofore very poorly known.
(Images of brown booby Sula leucogaster, at middle right, and magnificent frigatebird Fregata magnificens, at bottom right, taken by J. Christopher Haney, Terra Mar Applied Sciences, LLC)
New publication from Terra Mar highlights the challenges and risks from deep-ocean oil spills
Effects on seabirds from ship discharges, spills, and well blowouts are usually poorly detected and monitored far from land. In this newly accepted and peer reviewed work, lead author Dr. J. Christopher Haney and his coauthors underscore how interdisciplinary technologies can be used to address deficits that hamper individual or population level impact assessments for seabirds, and demonstrate where and how emerging technologies might be engaged to bridge the many gaps in oil spill monitoring. Although acute mortality from direct oil exposure poses the highest risk to seabirds, hazards from light-attraction, flaring, collisions, chronic pollution, and hydrocarbon inhalation around oil infrastructure also may induce bird mortality in the deep ocean.
Challenges to oil spill assessment for seabirds in the deep ocean appears as part of the special issue "Topical Collection on Ocean Spills and Accidents" in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. A re-print of this global synthesis can be accessed via the "More info" button at upper right.
2017 Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference
New Orleans, LA
The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science (GoMOSES) Conference aims to improve society’s ability to understand the Gulf, its ecosystems and people, and ensure the region’s long-term health and resiliency. A key aspect of this goal is to understand impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors on marine and coastal ecosystems and coastal populations, then to apply that information to improve future response, mitigation, and restoration following spills.
As part of this well-attended, annual, and wide-ranging science venue, Terra Mar's J. Christopher Haney participated in a public roll-out of the GoMMAPPS program to attendees, and also co-authored an oral presentation Anomalously high recruitment of the 2010 gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) year class: evidence of indirect effects from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico with lead Jeffrey Short, plus Hal Geiger, Christine Voss, Maria Vozzo, Vincent Guillory, and Pete Peterson.
Terra Mar joins the GoMMAPPS team
This week, Terra Mar Applied Science, LLC, officially joined a large working group of collaborating scientists and natural resource managers who form the Gulf of Mexico Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, shortened to GoMMAPPS. Beginning in 2016 and lasting to at least 2020, GoMMAPPS anticipates being the most spatially and temporally extensive avian research effort ever in the northern Gulf of Mexico, with a goal of documenting the distribution, abundance, and diversity of birds to inform regulatory decisions that influence conservation of migratory birds.
GoMMAPPS has two main components: (1) Design and implement aerial and vessel- based surveys to describe the distribution, abundance, and diversity of birds in the northern Gulf; and (2) Use models and other empirical data to interpret the influences of natural and anthropogenic variables on avian species. Through primary sponsorship from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Dr. Haney also will work closely with staff at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and the USGS Research Coop Unit, Clemson University.
Terra Mar coauthors a new study showing anomalous recruitment and stressed body condition in a schooling forage fish, Gulf menhaden, after Deepwater Horizon
Gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) showed unprecedented juvenile recruitment in 2010 during the year of the Deepwater Horizon well blowout, exceeding the prior 39-year mean by more than 4 standard deviations near the Mississippi River. Abundance of that cohort remained exceptionally high for two subsequent years as recruits moved into older age classes. Changes like this in a dominant forage fish population can be most parsimoniously explained as consequences of release from predation by the Gulf's apex predators. Sudden biomass increases like this in a major forage fish suggest additional trophically-linked effects at population-, trophic-level and ecosystem scales, reflecting an heretofore little appreciated indirect effect that may be associated with major oil spills in highly productive marine waters like the nearshore Gulf of Mexico.
Anomalously high recruitment of the 2010 Gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) year class: evidence of indirect effects from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Dr. Jeffrey Short, Juneau, AK, is lead author. More details about this extensive and intensive study can be found in the open-access reprint accessible through the "More info" button at upper right.
Ark it or park it? Conserving wildlife under socio-economic uncertainty
Etosha National Park,
After years of scarce rainfall, made even worse by a crippling El Niño drought, Namibia's showcase ecotourism destination, Etosha National Park, looks mighty scorched to me. Still, the water holes teem with apparently healthy wildlife. Here in southern Africa, many water (bole) holes are man-made, raising concerns whether this kind of artificial enhancement is really a good thing for protected areas.
When all is said and done, remarkably few tools are available to us to protect wildlife. The “ark” method, often linked to captive propagation, reintroduces animals from strongholds into areas where they have disappeared. The “park” method uses land conservation so as to exclude humans to create zones in which wildlife thrive, much like African national parks that function as havens for rhinos.
Keeping humans out can backfire though. A ‘lock it and leave it’ approach does not always work, and the reasons vary. Sweden's remote national parks ironically act as refuges for illegal killing of large carnivores. Given enough flexibility and a willingness to learn, though, parks are indispensable means to conserve wildlife. And when we can factor in cultural, social, and economic differences in human nature, parks function even better for wildlife. To learn more about the varied role of parks in wildlife conservation, check out the "More info" button for this entry.
Wildlife gathering at an artificial watering hole, western Etosha National Park, Namibia, 26 Sep 2016
© J. Christopher Haney 2016
Candor out of Africa: searing affirmations of climate change in an age of denial
Kruger National Park,
Only guests of the small Biyamiti Bush Camp can use this narrow dirt track snaking along the adjacent riverbed. But the Mbiyamiti River is completely dry, now, containing nothing but low banks of sand perforated by a scattered, gray rocks. At a tiny reception area, the single park staffer exclaims that a few millimeters of light rain fell the previous night. It is the first notable, measurable precipitation in this part of Kruger National Park recorded in the last two years.
Kruger is situated in a region where episodic drought has been the norm for eons. But this is hardly a typical drought. Over the 2014-2015 season, rainfall reached just 65% of the long-term average. Then, an El Niño cycle made things even worse the next year, when seasonal rainfall came to only 52% of average. South Africans throw out words like "unprecedented" to describe this change. And they should know, because the park has been keeping detailed environmental records for the past century.
Signs of the scorching drought are everywhere. Wildebeest search bare ground for grasses long gone, their ribs poking through skin drawn taught. A hippo lies dying under the shade of a bush, no water to be seen anywhere. Zebras cluster around a tiny puddle left by last night's brief shower. A lone giraffe is the only browser that I can see finding easy forage, it's long neck helping it reach the new spring leaf-out in the tall acacias. Just the scavengers and big predators, the hyenas, jackals, lions and other large cats, seemingly benefit from this prolonged and severe drought.
Climate change has already arrived here to Africa. Only the oblivious in our own species question the reality of this new threat to planetary welfare. Not even showcase natural areas like Kruger are safe from more carbon dioxide vented into the air.
blue wildebeest in Kruger National Park
dry Mbiyamiti River in southern Kruger National Park
plains zebra, southern Kruger National Park
drought-stricken hippo in southern Kruger National Park
Terra Mar helps build international capacity for seabird conservation in the Caribbean
Caribbean seabirds face daunting challenges, declining up to 90% in the last 200 years. A real obstacle to conservation is lack of capacity, but also natural and man-made disasters such as hurricanes or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. From 2011 to 2013, the Seabird Working Group of Birds Caribbean undertook capacity building projects supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. In addition to seabird summits at which regional experts identified priorities for research, training, and conservation, Terra Mar's founder Dr. J. Christopher Haney helped as part of a team effort to deliver in the Bahamas an instructional curriculum for a training workshop to participants from 15 countries, produce a Caribbean seabird monitoring manual in English and Spanish, and help review a small grants programs that relied on mentoring networks.
In 2015 at the 2nd World Seabird Conference held in Cape Town, South Africa, we reported out on the numerous project benefits to Caribbean seabirds: assessments of little-known colonies, monitoring programs, protection of high priority sites, a campaign to install artificial nest cavities for shearwaters and tropicbirds, satellite and GPS tagging for new insights into at-sea distribution, invasive species and monofilament line threat reduction, a regional listserve and education programs. To read about our Cape Town presentation, look for the P2-F-127 poster abstract found at the "More info" button.
When numbers lie: why seabird mortality from oil spills must be calibrated with real-time environmental data
Gulf of Mexico,
Researchers supported by the party responsible for Deepwater Horizon questioned the parameters that Terra Mar and its partners used to estimate seabird mortality from the Gulf spill using a technique termed a 'carcass deposition model.' However, their argument notably did not account for loss of tagged carcasses out to sea, effects of tethering carcasses to buoyant floats, loss to scavengers, or most importantly, the very different wind and current conditions prevailing in the calibration study they attempted in summer 2011 compared to the same marine environment during and after the blowout in spring 2010 (see figure, below).
Based on historical satellite altimetry, we were able to show that remotely-sensed oceanographic conditions, namely depictions of meso-scale geostrophic currents from the time of the spill itself, were oriented in such a way that any birds killed by the Deepwater Horizon event likely got swept offshore. In contrast, the currents prevailing during the experiment in 2011 strongly favored shoreline deposition in the northern Gulf of Mexico, thus inflating numbers of birds recovered, and ultimately depressing the model parameters so as to underestimate substantially the number of birds killed.
A take-home lesson from an academic debate over carcass deposition models? Numbers can deceive if we rely on parameter values from a study in which environmental conditions do not faithfully resemble those of a real spill. Another lesson is that remotely sensed data can serve as a check on what we should assume about the ocean conditions that steer the fate of oil and the biota harmed by these marine spills.
In 2010, currents and sea surface slope during Deepwater Horizon were oriented in such a way as to disfavor shoreline deposition of bird carcasses over much of the northern Gulf
In 2011, however, currents and sea surface slope more than a year after the spill were oriented in ways that strongly oriented (and accelerated) bird carcasses for shoreline deposition
New York Times and other media outlets feature Terra Mar's research about seabirds killed by the Deepwater Horizon blow out and the aftermath of a months-long oil spill
New York, NY
Public interest in the ecological impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident prompted keen media coverage of our investigation into the spill's impacts on the Gulf of Mexico's coastal and offshore marine birds. Using two different methods, a carcass deposition model and an exposure probability model, we estimated that from 600,000 to 800,000 birds were killed in coastal waters alone. After adding the birds exposed and likely dying in the more remote, offshore waters of the Gulf, the total mortality reached an estimated 1 million birds.
This research conducted by Terra Mar Applied Sciences about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been featured most prominently in the New York Times. Similar coverage has been seen also in such outlets as Salon, Science News, the Ocean Conservancy, BirdWatching Magazine, and Audubon Magazine. Our estimates of the potentially very high bird mortality that was likely to have occurred in the productive coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico have tended to corroborate the earlier predictions made by other wildlife specialists.
If a huge oil spill happened in the far ocean, would we see the harms caused to marine life in its path?
Gulf of Mexico,
Probably not. Even certainly not, perhaps. Yet just because a marine oil spill occurs out of our sight is no reason to surmise that harms to marine life are not substantial, or that at the very least these harms cannot (or should not) be estimated. Indeed, situations like these are ideal for science-based models to identify a range of plausible impacts.
After the Deepwater Horizon well blew out on 20 April 2010, it discharged massive volumes of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons continuously into the Gulf of Mexico over the next 86 days. During the course of the spill, the cumulative footprint of oil on the Gulf's surface was estimated to be anywhere from 112,000 to 176,000 square kilometers, an area roughly the size of Virginia or New York. The daily footprint alone of this oil spill averaged 11,200 square kilometers!
When investigators enumerate the birds killed by marine spills, they routinely use the carcasses retrieved on shorelines to extrapolate to a more realistic total. This technique relies on a spill occurring near enough to land, however, for sufficiently favorable (and measurable) winds and ocean currents to favor the shoreline deposition (Figure A). When such conditions are absent, as during Deepwater Horizon, carcasses cannot ever reach land. Instead, the dead birds are forever lost to scavenging and sinking.
So, how can spill mortality to marine birds be estimated if the spill is very extensive and far from land? Terra Mar and collaborators used an 'exposure probability model' to answer how many birds could have been killed during the Deepwater Horizon incident in the offshore Gulf of Mexico. This technique uses the product of three variables: the oil slick area (see Figure B), density of birds above the oil slick, and a proportionate mortality of birds exposed to oil during assumed exposure periods. Total avian mortality is then figured as the sum of mortalities from each exposure period.
Terra Mar's investigation estimated that between 36,000 to 670,000 birds died in waters of the offshore Gulf of Mexico as result of exposure to oil from the Deepwater Horizon, with the most likely number near 200,000 birds. When this same technique was used for the coastal waters of the Gulf, we found that numbers killed using the exposure probability method broadly agreed with estimates made by a carcass sampling model, too, roughly adding 600,000 more birds to the number killed.
Deep-water exploration for oil will only increase, so massive discharges such as the Deepwater Horizon are likely to recur. Effects of such spills on ocean life can easily go undetected due to remoteness, unfavorable environmental conditions, and logistical constraints on researchers imposed by the spill response itself. Nevertheless, exposure probability models give us one tool to better understand the full consequences of our energy demands on the deep ocean. Out of sight need not mean out of mind...
Figure A. Schematic of how oil dispersed from the MC-252 well head during the Deepwater Horizon blow out and spill
Özgökmen, T.M., et al. 2016. Over what area did the oil and gas spread during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Oceanography 29(3):96–107,
Solid line: extent (in km2) of the surface oil slick (waters ≥40 km offshore) in the northern Gulf of Mexico oiled zone during the Deepwater Horizon MC-252 blowout (includes days with no satellite coverage); dashed line: average
slick size used in the model; dotted lines: 2.5th and 97.5th percentiles of a probability distribution for this average. Satellite measurements of slick extent were augmented with
oil spill trajectory models and other ancillary data. See here for details.
Monte Carlo distribution (1 million trials) for the bird mortality in the offshore Gulf of Mexico derived from an exposure probability model
Figure B. Cumulative footprint of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico expressed as the number of total days oiled