When BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Unity graduates were among those called to the scene. “The beginning was mayhem,” recalled David Yates ’99, who arrived in Louisiana shortly after the spill began and spent two years conducting bird surveys in the Gulf. “Oil was spilling out, and no one could predict how it was going to end.”
Yates, a wildlife research biologist with Maine-based BioDiversity Research Institute (BRI), was tasked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with assessing the survivability of oil-coated birds, including pelicans, egrets, skimmers, and rails. The focus of the study was on lightly oiled birds. “Not the ones you see on television,” Yates explained.
At its height, the study tracked 400 birds daily across Texas to Florida, along with a control population of unaffected birds in South Carolina. Yates and his team worked 16- to 20-hour days, placing transmitters on birds and tracking their movements from airplanes and boats. When a mortality signal came, the team recovered the bird for evidence and necropsy. According to Yates, that’s when the real work began.
“It’s one thing to find the birds, but it’s more important to work with the data at the end of the day,” Yates said. “You use the data to write the story, to tell what happened. You owe it to the birds to give it your best shot.”
Looking back on his time in Louisiana, Yates traced a direct line from his Unity College experience to his career:
“It gave a good foundation for the work I do now,” he said. He recalled honing his telemetry skills in the campus woodlot, and benefitting from the hands-on field experience of professors.
“Listening to their stories made me think, ‘Wow, maybe I can do that someday.’” A Unity internship with BRI in 1999 set him on the path.
Though Yates has contributed to natural resource damage assessments following other notable oil spills, including the 2003 Buzzard’s Bay spill that affected 100 miles of New England coastline, the BP spill stands out in his mind.
“I came to know many of the local people over the years, and the effect of the spill in their own backyards was very emotional for them, and for me,” he said. “The future for the Gulf is so uncertain.” Still, he is hopeful that the effort to accurately assess the spill’s damage will eventually lead to meaningful habitat restoration. The goal, he says, “is to bring back something lost, if possible.”
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