“I hate to go back and Monday morning quarterback a lot of
the decisions that were made, because I wasn’t there in the trailer at the
In Part one of my interview with Dr. James Van Remsen we
spoke about research and LSU’s role in studying the oil spill, as well as the
Unified Command’s response to the disaster. Dr. Remsen is a pre-eminent
ornithologist and Professor in LSU’s Department of Natural Sciences as well as
the curator of the Museum of Natural Sciences. When we left off, Dr. Remsen was exploring the idea of
separating the emotional response from the more scientific response often
required when confronting environmental catastrophe’s like the Deepwater
Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
Dr. Remsen: I want to make sure that you know, as far as the
birds, the populations of birds, nothing makes me madder than seeing some bird
covered in oil washed up on the beach.
You know, at the emotional level, or a crab, some poor crab. It just really gets me. I want to make clear that at least at
the gut level that really gets me.
Drew: That was something I wanted to touch on. You know, in the beginning (of the
spill), there was the whole debate about euthanasia versus capture and rehab
and the value in saving birds. Where do you stand? That is, on the individual
level versus population dynamics and population biology. I mean no person can walk by an oiled
bird and not try and save it.
Dr. Remsen: Exactly, what kind of human would do that? You
know, you’ve got no soul if you can’t feel bad about that and try to do
Drew: For the first part of June they were rescuing birds on
Queen Bess Island, I mean they let Jeff Corwin do it, and he’s obviously not affiliated
with any agency or anyone that has authority to do that, although I’m sure he
has experience, and then when (hurricane) Alex passed in early July, pretty
much all of the juvenal Royal Terns in the colony became oiled, and they have
this protocol which I think is largely based on Pacific seabird colonies which
are very different in structure and dynamics than colonies here. But on Queen
Bess, and certainly Raccoon Island which is three miles long, the species are
segregated, the Pelican area is totally different than the Tern area, and it
would be very possible to go on to these islands without disrupting the whole
colony, or really any major part of the colony, especially if you went on in
the early morning. You definitely
could have rescued these birds without undo harm to the rest of the colony. I
mean you could have swooped up many of these birds with a net, without leaving
the boat. And they categorically
chose to not touch these birds, and they all died. To me there has to be some other motivation going on. Whether or not they didn’t want to deal
with it, or they didn’t want to somehow become responsible for those bird’s
lives. I don’t know what was going
Dr. Remsen: I mean, what do you do with them, once you net
them. Do you bring them to the
rehab center or do you euthanize them?
You know, if you bring a thousand baby Royal Terns to a rehab center
there’s no way. They’re going to die, at least a good percentage of them are
going to die there, and besides, let’s say you successfully rehab them, you
think a baby Royal Tern is going to be able to learn how to fish without Mom
Drew: Yeah, every Royal Tern you see right now is following
Mom and Dad, and being fed.
Dr. Remsen: They’re being fed, they’re begging, and even
then they have a pretty high mortality rate. Otherwise, we’d be knee deep in Royal Terns. So, I don’t know , the humane thing in
that case would probably be to euthanize them, but there’s no way that BP is
going to go out there and do that, or even Wildlife and Fisheries, no.
Drew: No, our public sentiment would never allow that.
Dr. Remsen: No. It’s just not worth it.
Even if it’s the right thing to do, it’s not worth it.
That’s the part of the debate that doesn’t interest me that
much, at least as a scientist. I
mean, emotionally, a thousand dead baby Royal Terns kills me, but I try to
separate that from OK, limited resources, what do we do, what’s best?
Drew: So speaking of resources, it seems to me that BP is a
97 billion dollar company, and that telemetry equipment exists. It’s small. It’s very easy to have a
receiver in a plane. They’ve got planes in the air all of the time anyway. They could locate birds, and track
their movements, and to my knowledge there’s been no effort to do anything like
that with the rehabilitated oiled birds?
Dr. Remsen: No, none! Paul Conover on LAbird(Louisiana’s
birding list serve) voiced that early on, and I agree with that one hundred
percent. At least in terms of
evaluation, let’s find out! We can
dry lab it, we can think you know maybe the baby Royal Terns aren’t going to
survive, or the adult Brown Pelicans will, but there are no data, there’s just
people blabbering without any information to back them up. You know something from a South African
Penguin colony is not necessarily transferrable to our situation. Lets get some information. You know, the scientist in me wants
that to happen. I don’t want to do
it. It’s just not my thing but
somebody should be doing that. And
BP could easily fund that.
Drew: And to me, it speaks to something a little more
nefarious that “they” don’t want that data out there. They don’t won’t to know the survivorship rate of these
birds, especially if it’s low.
Dr. Remsen: Of course not. You know that’s not going to stop the NSF from studying
it. It’s exactly the type of thing
that the fund was set up to study,
Drew: But it seems to me that the bulk of birds that will be
released, at least under normal circumstances have already been released, now
they’re sitting on birds that are special cases, the window of opportunity has
Dr. Remsen: Probably.
The opportunity is gone.
Let’s say you find out that 95% of the rehabbed birds die within the
first month. You think that’s
going to stop the rehab people from getting out there next year? What it might
do is cut down the funding for them, but the emotional response of trying to
help those birds is not going to go away. As far as I’m concerned, if people
want to spend their time and money rehabbing, every bird that they successfully
rehab is great, but lets find out how to do it better.
Drew: I remember early on, there was some talk about captive
breeding, etc. Were you ever
concerned on an immediate population level, were you ever worried that we would
lose whole populations?
Dr. Remsen: Maybe a little, but no, actually I would say
no. I’m just a believer. I’ve seen
it so many times. The Brown
Pelican, big huge bird, relatively slow reproducer, look at what happened to
them here. If the habitat is
suitable, birds will saturate it, given enough generations and time. So I would
have to say no, never been concerned about long-term population effects, maybe
some short term, in terms of direct mortality. I remain concerned about food and fish populations, and nest
site availability, but not the direct mortality.
Drew: With all
of the effects that the clean up crews and abatement efforts had on beach
nesting birds, do you think that the agencies dropped the ball on protecting
some of these areas and colonies?
Dr. Remsen: Yes.
I think you could say that, but again, you’ve got to realize. You were in the middle of that, you
know, the whole organization, or disorganization of the whole thing, you know
the command structure, and people making decisions on the fly. I basically don’t fault anybody for
anything. I’m a believer in a sort
of combination of chaos theory and catastrophe theory, and it takes a
catastrophe like this to learn how to do it better the next time. I hate to go back and Monday morning
quarterback a lot of the decisions that were made, because I wasn’t there in
the trailer at the time; you know, there’s a decision to make right now. It would be really easy to go back and
criticize a lot of those decisions, and some of them were really pretty
dumb. And you could say,” you
know, why didn’t they call somebody and ask them their opinion, get some more
feedback on this?” but then they would be criticized for not taking action fast
enough, and they’re under stress, so I’m pretty forgiving on a lot of that
stuff. It’s easy for me to say,
but if I had been down there seeing those guys bulldozing Plover nests and
stuff like that, you know… But
that’s the emotional side of me, but try to get away from that, kind of big
picture thing, cost benefit analysis type of thing. Pick your battles. I’d be
lenient any way. What I’m not
lenient on is corruption or collusion, stuff like that. I’m completely the opposite.
Drew: Do you feel like any of the national conservation
organizations have stepped up to the plate during this disaster?
Dr. Remsen: I don’t have enough information to say for sure,
and some of this data that is mysteriously proprietary, but I haven’t seen
anything. I have no evidence of
anybody producing any information whatsoever. The ABA with their limited
resources accomplished more in this oil spill than (other National
Organizations) in terms of actually producing information and data, and getting
the word out. It’s incredible. The comparison in efficiency is
dramatic. The money that ABA gave
us to do those surveys, every single dollar of that goes toward producing
data. What birds are where and
what percentage of them are oiled.
There isn’t a cent that doesn’t go into that. You know for a few thousand dollars. And we haven’t begun to use that. We’ve got a long ways to go on it. I don’t know how much money is going
into doing these other things.
That’s the other thing. All of the data gathered from the ABA fund is
public information. It goes right
into ebird and you can go on there right now and figure out what percentage of the
birds are oiled and where, and we’re not just taking anybody’s data out
there. There are only a few people
that we’re going to hire to go out there to do these surveys. In a training session, you can’t inculcate
someone with 20 years of field experience. People are going to see oil where there’s none, or miss it
when it’s there. Using those skilled observers at least we know we have the
bird ID and numbers right. And we
will use the same observers over time so we can control for observer effect,
and that’s what I worry about in these mass training sessions, is observer
effect. You know there’s so much
noise(data) in there, especially if it’s subtle. It’s one thing if the bird is covered in oil, but if it’s
just staining it can be difficult to see.
Drew: One of my biggest concerns is the beachfront foragers,
especially the Piping and Snowy Plovers.
Their populations are low enough that the threshold isn’t very high, for
what could be potentially a massive effect on the near shore environment. I want to recommend some active hazing
in areas that remain heavily oiled. What do you think about hazing?
Dr. Remsen: I think it’s a great idea. I don’t know anything about the
effectiveness of it, but you know it would give someone on a three-wheeler a
great mission!(laughter) I don’t
know how many times you have to chase a Piping Plover away before it actually
gets out of there, you could be doubling back forever.
Drew: That’s the second part of the recommendation; to
identify beaches that are relatively clean and designate them as sanctuaries,
as sort of a refuge status and try and limit public access, at least for this
Do you have any other recommendations, looking forward as to
things that might help in terms of migration?
Dr. Remsen: No, well, this whole thing about migration I
haven’t followed this, Well, I haven’t read too much about it, but I’m sure
people jumped all over that whole “Short Stop” thing. You’re not going to shortstop
a Sanderling. The migratory Piping
Plovers, what are you going to do?
That’s the habitat they want to go to. You’re absolutely dead on correct
that it’s those splash zone, beach zone birds that are the ones you’re going to
have to worry about, and in addition to the Plovers, you’ve got Sanderlings,
Willets, Turnstones, and you’ve got major roosting areas for a lot of the Gulls
and Terns, and I know they aren’t as sensitive, they don’t have the lack of
margin for error, but that would be my second level of management concern. I can’t think of anything offhand
really. I think that your idea, of
herding them, but then again, how big are the remaining oiled areas?
Drew: They’re pretty small. That’s the thing, if you do a flight over it, it becomes very
obvious that this oil accumulated in pools on eddies and on points, which is
where a lot of the gulls are roosting also, but the major heavy areas of
concentration are in small areas, maybe a hundred yards by 20 yards, so it’s
Dr. Remsen: So it’s feasible, well you have a better idea
from your on the ground experience and over flights about the feasibility, but
I like the idea of somehow just keeping those birds away, maybe with people, or
noise makers, I don’t know what you’d use, but I think that’s the best you can
do, just try and keep them away from there and hope they’ll go someplace
else. Certainly, the less time
they spend there, the better. Period.
Even if it’s not a hundred percent effective it’s still a success.
Drew: I know that these oiled wildlife responders have
hazing in their repertoire.
Dr. Remsen: They’ve obviously worked this out as much as
anybody has, and if they’ve got protocols for this sort of thing, that’s where
I would put my resources, to keep those Piping Plovers away from those kinds of
Drew: Do you think that deepwater drilling has any place in
Louisiana? Obviously, the economy and the people seem to really think that it’s
Dr. Remsen: Well, (sighs) personally, if you really want to
step back, I’m opposed to the use of fossil fuels period. I mean I think all oil, I mean it’s all
harmful, all of it. Every single
bit of it, whether it’s deepwater or in shore, everything about it sucks as far
as I’m concerned, but as long as we’re not willing to bite the bullet, we’re
the ones that are forcing deepwater drilling. We’re the one’s that are responsible for the Deepwater
Horizon thing because we’re willing to pay, no matter what for their products.
As far as, if I were emperor would I allow deepwater
drilling after this? If it means degradation of the environment in the long
term, no. What about the
fishermen? What about the shrimpers, and so on? Who would I rather support? If it comes to choosing people, I’ll take the Oystermen over
the offshore oil industry any day.
Drew: Only two shrimpers went out from Grand Isle on opening
day, and the media is saying that it’s because they don’t think there’s a
market for Gulf shrimp, but everyone I’ve talked to, and the Houma Courier did
an article on it, it’s because they wouldn’t feed it to their families, so they
won’t bring it to market to feed to other people.
Dr. Remsen: Good for them.
Drew: I’m at a point where I just don’t understand where the
motivation is for these corporate executives and corporate mandates that just
serve to make more money at the planet’s expense? It’s not like in the end you can say that you won. What could the possible motivation be?
Well, if you’re an oil executive you can never have enough country club
memberships to be satisfied.
That’s what we’re dealing with as far as I’m concerned. Those people have unlimited greed. It’s competition. Who can have the most Mercedes. I don’t know, that’s the new kings and
queens of this plan. I call it the
“CEO-ocracy”. It’s the form of government we have. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
In some ways, I’m kind of glad that it happened, because it
will open a lot of people’s eyes to the power of big oil.
The juxtaposition of all that media stuff that the oil is
gone with photographs of the oil that’s still there. The free press is our only hope, and people don’t like being
deceived. Those are the two
ingredients that I think can work to counteract the “CEO-ocracy”. The free press working to expose deceit
and cover up because people hate that stuff. They don’t like being lied to. It’s a fundamental human thing.