Fragile Boca Chica ecosystem endures the impact of SpaceX Starship launches
SpaceX is attempting to launch the largest rocket ever made into orbit this week from Boca Chica Beach, outside of Brownsville. Surrounding their site in South Texas are some of the most sensitive habitats in the world, particularly for migrating shorebirds.
Justin LeClaire, a conservation biologist with the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, studies the area’s migrating shorebirds, some of which are federally protected.
LeClaire comes out to Boca Chica a few times a week, looking for and studying the movements of plovers and other shorebirds like least terns.
"The birds kind of move wherever the wet mud is. And so now we've got a ton of really nice wet mud that's accessible to short legged, short-billed shorebirds. And so they're just spread out all over these mudflats," he said.
Mudflats surround just about every part of SpaceX’s facilities. The company’s presence has impacted the shorebirds and Boca Chica Beach at large.
The first thing LeClaire pointed out in a wetland just across from the SpaceX production facility was the ATV tracks, which haphazardly followed the edge of the mudflats for miles. These were presumably from surveyors SpaceX hired to monitor wildlife, as required by the Federal Aviation Administration. But these tracks posed a particular issue for plovers, who like to build nests in depressions made in sand — even if they are ATV tracks.
"So on top of ruining the pristine nature of the mud there, they're also creating some potential nesting habitat that they may just drive over in the future," he said.
“Potential” is the key word — at least two species of plover have stopped or reduced nesting near SpaceX in the last few years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Over the last few years, we've seen almost a total abandonment of semi plovers in this area," he said. "There were four or five pairs typically per year over there, a couple over on this side of the launch site that we don't really see nest in this area anymore, which isn't too surprising."
Just up the road, right across from the launch pad, we parked and looked out onto the algal flats. They’re stretches of algae and biofilm on top of the mud and sand of the wetlands surrounding Boca Chica Beach. They’re a food source for some species of shorebirds, making up around 50% of their diets, LeClaire said.
“This area right here that you can actually see these kind of lines that almost look like tire tracks. That's where they dragged out one of the biggest pieces that was out here,” he explained.
LeClaire referred to pieces of the Starship prototypes that exploded across Boca Chica in 2020 and 2021 after test launches. SpaceX had to recover these pieces from the algal flats across from the launch pad using trucks and ATV’s. Now, three years later, the tracks are still there.
“It just kind of shows how long it takes for mudflats [and] algal flats to heal. It can take decades. That was three or four years ago. And on the back side of that little grassy knoll is where that object landed. And there's just a big pond there now,” he said.
While those pieces of SpaceX are gone now, the dunes behind the launch pad presented a different story.
LeClaire walked about a quarter mile in the shadow of SpaceX’s launch pad, coming upon a clearing littered with dark-blue stones — all debris from the 31-engine static-fire test in February. Under the launch pad, he pointed out a broken, dark-blue foundation.
In this same clearing, in January, LeClaire saw nearly 300 of the rare piping plovers roosting together. That’s about 4% of their total population.
“Having that many plovers half a mile from this launch pad sending off the largest rockets known to mankind right now really makes you wonder what's going to happen to those guys for sure,” he said.
LeClaire headed deeper into the wetlands, going back toward SpaceX’s production facility. He saw tracks from people and animals disappear as he neared a massive algal flat. He was more than ankle-deep in mud by then.
But in the distance, there were thousands of shorebirds, after walking less than a mile from the launch pad.
"So we've got 15,000 shorebirds right in front of us here. And as I use my binoculars down the way, I can see a whole bunch more scattered way down that way to the south," he said.
LeClaire said this is proof enough that this area is not an empty space prime for space colonization, as some say.
“So, if you don't know what to look for or where to look, it's going to look like a wasteland, but it's not,” he said.
Last December, LeClaire and another biologist counted 160,000 shore birds at Boca Chica in one day, most of which were sandpipers eating off the agal flats’ biofilm.
LeClaire explained that most of the time, during the week, Highway 4 is effectively closed because SpaceX is performing tests or moving equipment. So just as the general public can’t regularly come to Boca Chica beach, neither can he.
“When you only are able to visit the site once a week or twice a week and there's several days in between, that really hurts your ability to do any serious studies on what's going on out here with the birds,” he said.
LeClaire and the Coastal Bend Bay and Estuaries team will be at Boca Chica after the Starship launch to survey any damage.