The BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is a potent and anguishing reminder of the unacceptable consequences of oil development. The disaster has already taken human lives and now puts at risk communities along the Gulf Coast, an important fishery, and sensitive wetlands that are home to over 400 species.
As millions of gallons of oil from the April 20th explosion continue to churn in the Gulf, the potential effects on endangered wildlife remain unclear. The majority of the millions of gallons of oil leaked is still looming off shore, suspended by adverse weather. While this is giving organizations time to prepare for on shore rescue efforts, it’s unwelcome news for already at risk species.
25% of the wetlands in the United States are in the area of the spill and it is home to as many as 20 National Wildlife refuges. Species such as the Brown Pelican, that was only removed from the Endangered Species List last year, are nesting directly in the path of the spill. Exposure to oil can cause birds to become unable to fly, stay afloat or stay warm as the oil seeps into their feathers. A 2005 oil spill of a much smaller scale was responsible for the deaths of 700 brown pelicans.
The Gulf wetlands are home to a variety of beach nesting shorebirds, turns and gulls. They are especially vulnerable as they nest on the sandy beaches and rely on fish for food sources. Many of these bird species are endangered, including the least tern, and piping plover. The spill could be disastrous for a wide variety of birds. Large wading birds, such as great blue herons, egrets and ibises are native to the area and will be at risk if oil comes ashore. The millions of migratory birds that use the areas estuaries, bays, marshes inlets and creeks as stopover sites will also be vulnerable if the oil comes further ashore.
Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles live in the Gulf, all are listed as either threatened or endangered, including the loggerhead and critically endangered Kemp’s ridley. The turtles were having a difficult season before the spill, with unusually large numbers suddenly and mysteriously washing ashore. Worse, the spill is occurring during peak nesting season for 5 of the 6 turtle species. Sea turtles lay their eggs in what could become oil covered sandy beaches and oil exposed eggs and hatchlings could decimate their population for years to come.
Like sea turtles, marine mammals such as endangered sperm whales, manatees, bottlenose dolphins and porpoises are at double risk as they have pass through the oily surface in order to breathe. That’s causing them to have to interact with the spill both below water and with the expanding surface slick. As they rise to breathe they’re potentially inhaling both the oil itself and the toxic gaseous vapors emitted by the spill. It would be a debacle for baleen whales, that have baleen filters that could get coated in oil, which would prevent them from eating.
The spill came at an especially bad time and place for the critically endangered bluefin tuna. The giant fish, which can grow to as large as 1500 lbs., is already in steep decline due to overfishing driven largely by a premium market price in sushi restaurants. Compounding their plight, this is their spawning season and the spill occurred in one of their preferred breeding locations, meaning they will be swimming and releasing their eggs into the worst of the oil fouled sea waters. In addition, the threatened gulf sturgeon are congregating in coastal waters and may be affected.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Oil has the potential to persist in the environment long after a spill event and has been detected in sediment 30 years after a spill. On sandy beaches, oil can sink deep into the sediments. In tidal flats and salt marshes, oil may seep into the muddy bottoms. Effects of oil in these systems have the potential to have long-term impacts on fish and wildlife populations.”
Environmental emergency responders and monitors, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, are working to assess the impacts of the oil spill on our ocean, coasts and wildlife. It is of the utmost urgency that government agencies be armed with the resources they need in order to address the cleanup and recovery needs of Gulf Coast residents, businesses, wildlife, and marine life.
Please ask President Obama to protect our oceans, coasts and endangered wildlife from oil drilling.