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Gulf oil spill: Chandeleur Islands are first oil victim

May 6, 2010 | 12:39 pm

Oil has hit the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana, said Kelby Ouchley, a temporary manager working out of the Department of Interior’s wildlife-refuge visitor’s center in Venice, La.

BP spokesman John Curry, who is stationed at the joint command center in Robert, La., confirmed that oil has impacted Freemason Island, just south of the Chandeleur Islands. “We sent out three shoreline cleanup action teams,” he said, “to deploy booms, including absorbent booms.”“Our response teams are assessing the situation, and I’m hoping to hear back from them later today,” Curry said. “The consistency of the oil at this time is unknown.”

St. Bernard Parish President Craig P. Taffaro said his parish does not have enough protective booms to guard against oil washing ashore.

Ouchley said Thursday that wildlife officials had just gotten the first verified reports of oil washing up on the Chandeleurs, not far from a sensitive pelican rookery. He said field workers were investigating, but he could offer no further detail, because the islands are so remote that they are out of range of cellphones or even radios. Wildlife officials had also found the first oiled birds there, he said: Two northern gannets, both dead.

Ecologically and historically, the islands are considered treasures. They encompass Breton National Wildlife Refuge, the second refuge established in the U.S. system, and there is a rare, famous picture of President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a beach there back in the early days of the environmental movement. Roosevelt was motivated to preserve the area because of the slaughter of aquatic birds for the manufacture of women's hats.

The islands are grassy in places and almost completely uninhabited. They are barren landscapes of brown sand and mud, mixed with oyster shells, and surrounded by greenish seas. Fishing enthusiasts flock there.

Pelican populations were restored on the island in recent decades after the bird disappeared from the region because of DDT and other threats, Ouchley said. Since they began nesting on the islands, they have thrived and are now tending about 1,800 nests at three locations on the islands, Ouchley said. Terns and gulls nest there too.

“The islands are very vibrant places,” Ouchley said. He described them as “places where thousands of birds are wheeling and whirling around you. You see pelicans toting big limbs to make nests and peregrine falcons flying over. It is rife with life.”

Those who love the islands are in a state of suspense, he said. “You look at the horizon,” he said, “and you don’t know what to expect.”

--Jill Leovy

Photo: Boaters along the edge of the oil slick Wednesday, about a quarter-mile east of the Chandeleur Islands. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times.