Will we ever know the full wildlife toll of the BP oil spill?

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
June 08, 2010



Will we ever know the full wildlife toll of the BP oil spill? The short answer: no. The gruesome photos that are making the media rounds over the last week of oiled birds, fish, and crustaceans are according to experts only a small symbol of the ecological catastrophe that is likely occurring both in shallow and deep waters.

Due to the photos, birds, especially the brown pelican, have become the symbol of the spill to date. But while dozens of birds have been brought to rescue stations covered in oil, the vast majority will die out at sea far from human eyes and snapping cameras, according to Sharon Taylor a vet with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Taylor told the AFP that the 550 dead oiled birds have been found to date, but that was likely a "small number" of the total.

Some marsh bird species are also unlikely to ever be found. Melanie Driscoll of the National Audubon Society told the AP that some species inhabiting Louisiana's marshes will simply disappear like the clapper rail, the seaside sparrow, and the mottled duck. Yet, as much press as the birds are receiving their suffering and deaths are merely a drop in the bucket of the damage that is happening across the gulf.


Oiled brown pelicans captured at Grand Isle, Louisiana on Thursda, June 3, 2010 wait to be cleaned of Gulf spill crude at The Fort Jackson Wildlife Care Center in Buras, Louisiana. Photo courtesy of International Bird Rescue Research Center.
For fish the oil spill couldn't have happened at a worst time: spawning season. While adult fish may be able to avoid the oil, their young will not. Fishermen fear for the next generation of shrimp, bluefin tuna, and king mackerel.

Conservationists fear that one victim of the oil spill will be the smalltooth sawfish, which is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Devastated by fisheries—both as a targeted species and as bycatch—the species has plunged to between 1-5 percent of its historic population. Could the oil spill lead to its extinction? No one knows and it will be years before researchers are able to determine how the sawfish fares against this latest catastrophe.

People have found perished sea turtles in the hundreds (far higher number than usual), yet it's impossible to know how many sea turtles are dying in the sea without their bodies washing ashore.

The Gulf of Mexico also has a resident population of some 1600 sperm whales. Little-studied and mysterious, sperm whales inhabit deep waters and it's unlikely their corpses will ever wash up on land. Celine Godard-Codding, an environmental toxicologist at Texas Tech University, recently told National Geographic that if the oil exposure kills just three sperm whale individuals it could affect the population's long term survival, given that the whales are slow breeding. Sperm whales are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List: drowning in nets and pollution are thought to be the biggest killers.


Still photo of live feed of Gulf oil spill in cooperation with BP. Photo courtesy of the US government.
But what about smaller, less media-savvy species, such as the microorganisms that many marine animals depend on for food? No one collects numbers on these species, but Greg Bossart, the chief veterinary officer and a senior vice president with the Georgia Aquarium, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "this spill is novel because it is spilling from a depth of 1 mile and has not stopped in over a month and continues to grow. Because many of the effects are difficult to observe, they may appear subtle but could actually be more profound in the long run because the oil impacts the microorganisms that make up the base of the various food chains involved."

Bossart admits that "we do not have a good historical template to work from to predict the long-term damage."

Oil at deep water is of grave concern for the entire marine ecosystem, which is one reason why BP is denying scientists' reports of 'oil plumes' far beneath the surface. Coral reefs, the rainforests of the marine world in terms of biodiversity, could be suffocated by oil coating.

"Unfortunately, the depth at which the oil is coming out of the well is home to the greatest diversity of species in the entire Gulf region," Thomas Shirley of the Harte Research Institute explained to Spiegel Online.

As of Sunday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service put the wildlife death toll at 597 birds, 243 sea turtles, and 31 mammals, including dolphins. Some of these animals, however, wait testing to uncover if oil played a role in their death.

But how many animals have actually perished—and how many will succumb due to long-term effects—is impossible to say. What isn't impossible to say is that the Gulf of Mexico's ecosystems will take decades (if not more) to recover and some species and resident populations may never recover, disappearing forever.







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CITATION:
Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (June 08, 2010).

Will we ever know the full wildlife toll of the BP oil spill?.

http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0608-hance_wildlife_oil.html