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Biologists Assess Ike Impacts To Coastal Ecosystems

Tom Harvey, 512-389-4453,

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AUSTIN, Texas — Hurricane Ike’s big storm surge caused hundreds of localized oil and hazardous materials spills that pose threats to fish and wildlife, and it pushed saltwater into upper coast freshwater wetlands that support migrating waterfowl and estuarine life. But ecological damage to coastal habitats may not be as widespread or severe as some had initially feared.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists and other experts have for days been assessing Ike impacts, starting with an aerial survey Sep. 15 when wildlife, coastal fisheries and state parks representatives made an airplane overflight of the upper coast. Since then, they’ve been assessing Ike’s ecological effects in two main categories: pollution events and saltwater intrusion.

The week of Sep. 15, a Unified Command was set up in the Houston area to respond to the numerous spills caused by Hurricane Ike, comprised of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, Texas General Land Office and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. TPWD experts from the Natural Resource Trustee and Kills and Spills Programs worked to support the spill response effort by identifying threats to fish and wildlife and guiding cleanup activities.

So far, the spill Unified Command has assessed more than 230 pollution reports in affected coastal areas stretching from Houston-Galveston to Lake Charles, Louisiana. More than 100 of these sites are now being remediated, and the Unified Command has closed out another 121 of the total reported cases with no further action needed. The types of pollution involved include oil and diesel from boats and other sources, as well as a variety of industrial chemicals washed into waterways by flooding.

Most of the Ike-related spills turned out to be minor, according to Brandon Brewer, a Coast Guard public information officer with the Unified Command. "For those spills that are medium-sized, most have been contained," Brewer said. "Now the big thing is prioritizing the worst spots, and sending recovery teams out to start cleanup." He said the Unified Command would be continuing work for weeks at least.

Some of the worst spills caused by Ike are on the Bolivar Peninsula, where the brunt of the storm demolished houses and buildings, and game wardens worked search and rescue for days. Now, TPWD and other spill response team members are focused on sheens of oil coating the landscape in the High Island and Goat Island areas, where there is a significant concentration of oil and gas production facilities.

"We’re evaluating multiple spills from two responsible parties in the High Island area," said Chip Wood, an assessment biologist with TPWD’s Natural Resources Trustee Program. "About 3,000 acres there are affected by visible oil sheening and staining."

At High Island and other spill sites, authorities will first try to identify the "responsible party," the company or individual that operates the facility from which the spill came, and get them to pay for cleanup if possible. If that won’t work, there are federal cleanup funding sources they can tap.

Wood said his team is coordinating with the TPWD Wildlife Division and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to respond to other spills at the department’s J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area and the Bessie Heights Marsh (Nelda Stark Unit) of the Lower Neches WMA, and also to spills at Anahuac, McFaddin and Sabine National Wildlife Refuges.

He said close to 500 acres are affected by spills on the federal refuges, Bessie Heights is showing sheens and some oiling on about 2,000 acres, and about 1,200 acres are affected at Murphree WMA.

"We’re getting concerned about these spills because migrating waterfowl will be arriving in late October," Wood said, referring to the millions of ducks and geese that return each fall from Canada to winter on the Texas coast. "We’re working to monitor cleanup progress. If there’s still black oil on the water as birds come in to roost, they can be oiled. Experience shows waterfowl will typically not avoid contaminated areas."

Authorities are advising people to call the National Response Center at (800) 424-8802 to report pollution or displaced hazardous materials. To report oiled or injured wildlife in areas affected by Ike, call the TPWD Law Enforcement communications dispatcher at (281) 842-8100.

But a more widespread problem than spills may face migrating waterbirds when they arrive in Southeast Texas. Saltwater from Ike’s storm surge is threatening freshwater wetlands, one of Texas’ most important wildlife habitats.

"In the Galveston Bay area, Ike’s long-term impacts to coastal marshes appears fairly negligible," said Jamie Schubert, a Coastal Fisheries Division marsh ecologist who is team leader for upper coast ecosystem assessment. "That area has mostly salt marshes, which all drained fairly quickly."

But it’s another story for the Sabine Lake system marshes near Beaumont-Port Arthur, which are mostly freshwater and unused to high salinity. In recent decades, freshwater flow to these wetlands has already been reduced by industrialization along the Sabine River and the Intracoastal Waterway. At the storm’s height, the tide gauge at the Neches River saltwater barrier showed water flowing upriver 30 times faster than the river was flowing downstream before the storm surge. Now, levees and other infrastructure built around area wetlands are slowing Ike’s saltwater surge from draining.

"This hurricane may really be a pivotal factor that moves these freshwater marshes over to more saline type marsh," Schubert said. "Most plants here are used to freshwater, and once they die, that could affect the soil and lead to marsh loss. Increased marsh loss can affect the entire food chain. And that could have long-term impacts for fisheries production, including commercial and recreational species that use these marshes, such as red drum, white shrimp, and blue crab."

Elsewhere in Southeast Texas, the storm surge has also flooded tens of thousands of acres of coastal prairie. That saltwater "burn" is top-killing grasses and other plants.

"What we really need is a good rain to flush out all the spill contaminants and saltwater," Schubert said. "The landscape is brown for miles around where storm surge has inundated all these plants that can’t tolerate saltwater. Hopefully it will just top-kill plants and they’ll come back from the roots, but that will depend on rainfall. If we get good rains this fall and winter, most of our southeastern coastal prairie ought to be able to come back strong."

For coastal habitats, there is at least one silver lining to Ike’s storm clouds. The storm surge is also killing non-native plants that have invaded Texas and threatened native species in recent years, exotics like torpedo grass, water hyacinth, hydrilla, giant salvinia and common salvinia.