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A new report published in Marine Ecology Progress Series estimates that the number of seabirds killed as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is much higher than previously thought. 

On April 20, 2010, the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded 40 miles from the Louisiana coast. The rig subsequently sank, causing the deaths of 11 men and what would eventually become the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The blown-out Macondo well took 87 days to cap and unleashed 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean, doing damage to the marine ecosystem and the Gulf fishing industry that still endures today.

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Among the many creatures affected by the massive oil spill, birds are particularly vulnerable due to their feathers. When coated in oil, birds can have difficulty moving, swimming and flying, causing them to die of dehydration, starvation and drowning. Because many birds can die and sink in the ocean, the exact number of bird deaths related to oil spills is unknown. The new Marine Ecology report uses two methods of calculating such deaths: estimates based on total mortalities from carcasses recovered and estimates based on seabird densities across the geographic extent of the oil slick.

These methods resulted in an average range of 600,000 to 800,000 total seabird deaths, though the researchers note that uncertainties in the estimates place the total potential range between 300,000 and 2 million. Taken as a blow to their total Gulf populations, four species absorbed the brunt of the damage: the northern gannet (8 percent), brown pelican (12 percent), royal tern (15 percent) and the laughing gull (32 percent).

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BP, the multinational oil and gas company that operated the Deepwater Horizon, has publicly responded to this study, pointing out that the research was funded by The Murray Firm and Cossich, Sumich, Parsiola & Taylor, LLC, two law firms that represent clients with environmental impact claims against BP. The lead author of the report, the response notes, “works for an organization that has also been unsuccessful in its efforts to sue BP over purported wildlife impacts.”

The Marine Ecology estimates, BP argues, are based on “general assumptions by the authors” and would be “substantially lower” if they based on “numbers specific to the Deepwater Horizon accident.”

BP has written its own white paper on seabird deaths related to the spill, which begins:

“Despite initial speculation by some Trustees and media sources that the bird population might suffer substantial impacts from the Deepwater Horizon accident, multiple studies demonstrate that any impacts to the Gulf’s bird population were limited, and were followed by a strong recovery since the spill. [. . .] Simply put, the evidence does not reveal ongoing impacts to bird populations linked to the spill beyond the initial, limited acute mortality.”

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