The Houston Ship Channel could reopen later Monday after being closed because nearly 170,000 gallons of tar-like oil spilled in a collision of two ships on Saturday.

More help was being called in Monday to contain the spill and protect important shorebird habitat on the Gulf Coast at a time when the annual shorebird migration was in progress.

The Coast Guard said it could reopen the shipping channel by late Monday. About 80 barges had been stranded by closure of the channel, a major conduit for petrochemical products.

A barge carrying about 900,000 gallons of the heavy oil collided with a ship Saturday, spilling as much as a fifth of its cargo into the Houston Ship Channel about 60 km southeast of Houston.

By Sunday, the barge had been cleared of its remaining contents, but the heavy tar-like oil had spread as much as 19 km offshore into the Gulf of Mexico.

Could affect oil prices

The channel typically handles 60 to 80 vessels a day and its closure could push up oil prices, analysts said.

U.S. oil supply is lower than normal because of a colder than usual winter.

If the bottleneck of vessels in the Gulf eases in a day or so, there likely won't be much impact on fuel prices. But a more prolonged backup could push up prices briefly, said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Jim Ritterbusch and Associates in Chicago,

On Monday, the Coast Guard had 24 oil-retrieving skimmers working to clear the spill and more than 380 people were working on cleanup of sensitive areas.

The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating what happened and the barge’s owner, Kirby Inland Marine Corp. said it would take responsibility for cleanup costs.

Closed to fishing

The spill has closed the Texas City Dike, a popular fishing area on a levee that extends 8 km into Galveston Bay.

Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, said there is important shorebird habitat on both sides of the ship channel. One is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east, which Gibbons said attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are a perfect foraging habitat.

"The timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season," Gibbons said. He added that tens of thousands of wintering birds remain in the area.

With files from the Associated Press