By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now
The delicate ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico and its coasts are home to a vast, diverse array of wildlife.
Sperm whales, endangered sea turtles, bluefin tuna, bottlenose dolphins, delicate birds that live mostly hidden in marshes and barrier islands, migratory birds and even Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican, are among the seemingly countless species that live, breed and nest in the gulf.
Now, everyone is watching and waiting as the huge oil spill, caused by the rupture of a BP oil well two weeks ago and growing by at least 210,000 gallons of oil every day, drifts around in the gulf’s 600,000 square miles. The slick is contaminating deep waters and threatening the coasts in yet incalculable ways.
“We are preparing for a significant number of oiled birds. We hope that’s not going to occur, but if it does, there is extensive preparation going on to deal with that situation,” David Ringer, an Audubon Society spokesman, said Monday.
Already the oil slick has “oiled” many deep-sea diving birds and is certain to harm sea turtles, whales and porpoises that can’t escape clotted masses of oil floating on the warm gulf waters. Whales, sharks, sea turtles that come into contact with a lot of oil rarely can be saved.
The environmental stakes are very high.
More than half of the coastal wetlands in the continental U.S. are in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana alone has about 40 percent of that total, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those precious, fragile resources have been eroding for decades, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 took its toll.
There are 20 coastal National Wildlife Refuges that could be impacted by the oil spill, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And already the spill has temporarily shutdown the multi-billion dollar commercial and recreational fishing industries in the gulf where in 2008 fisherman hauled in 1 1/4 million pounds of fish and shellfish.
Teams of government and conservation group experts and volunteers are getting ready to act when the reddish oil mass makes landfall — and spawns a wildlife emergency.
“Depending on where this hits, it could be very (publicly) visible and traumatic on the coast, or it could be something that’s harder to capture and much harder to assess,” Ringer said. If birds die in remote places where people cannot see them, that makes it difficult for people to relate to the disaster, he added.
The oil spill’s timing couldn’t be worse: Many birds, sea turtles and marine mammals are in their breeding and nesting seasons in the gulf, which makes them all the more susceptible to toxic oil.
Songbirds and other migratory birds – orioles, swallows, warblers and others — stop in these delicate habitats. The dwindling numbers of red-cockaded woodpeckers are among the threatened and endangered species that depend on the ecosystem for survival.
Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the National Parks Service, and BP experts are among those working together to address wildlife issues and efforts.
Joint agency response teams are trying to put booms in place to restrain oil from reaching areas that are most at risk, according to a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Loud propane-powered cannons are being used to chase birds away from the water’s edge.
In just one of Louisiana’s national wildlife refuges – 5,000-acre Breton, the second oldest wildlife refuge in the U.S. established in 1904 – there are an estimated 34,000 birds, including 2,000 pairs of pelicans and 10,000 pairs of terns.
Another refuge, Bon Secour (“safe harbor” in French) has 7,000 acres for birds, nesting sea turtles and even an endangered beach mouse. Other refuges are populated by birds as well as alligators, Arctic peregrine falcons and swamp rabbits.
All the bays, marshes, grasses, estuaries and barrier islands that dot the Gulf of Mexico coast could greatly complicate rescue efforts, because they are difficult to reach. The oil spill damage will likely reverberate for years in those places.
Other creatures that could encounter oil are already on the endangered species list. The Kemp’s Ridley is the world’s most threatened sea turtle, according to NOAA, and it only nests in the western portion of the Gulf of Mexico.
Other sea turtles – the leatherback, loggerhead, green and hawksbill — are also diminishing in numbers.
The reddish egret, roseate spoonbill, black skimmer (a tern-like bird) and snowy plover (shorebirds that nest on the ground of barrier islands and beaches) are among the other birds environmental agencies and groups are especially concerned about if oil washes onto their breeding or nesting grounds.
Development has already shrunk the habitat for plovers, sandpipers, terns and oystercatchers, so oil in their habitat could be deadly.
Hundreds of whale sharks, which can grow 40 feet long, showed up in the northern gulf last summer. At least seven endangered sperm whales have been spotted in the oil-threatened areas.
Even small sea life can be smothered by oil: oysters, shrimp and plankton (food for crabs and shrimp). And the oil is not a one-time threat. Its residue could remain in coastal grounds for months, or perhaps years.
So, what happens when birds, turtles or marine mammals come into contact with oil?
Seabirds coated in oil lose the insulating quality of their waterproof feathers, causing them to lose body heat and become hypothermic. They may lose their ability to float and fly.
In an attempt to remove the oil, they preen their feathers and ingest it. That can damage their gastrointestinal tract and cause everything from ulcers to damaged lungs, kidneys, livers or hearts.
The oil can also cause eggs not to hatch, or create developmental defects in eggs, according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. Birds may abandon tainted hatchlings and adults’ breeding patterns may change. The resuls of oil spills in delicate habitats can take years to manifest, or harm species for generations.
Furry marine mammals such as sea otters can also lose their ability to stay warm if their fur is contaminated. Dolphins and whales are in danger because of risks of inhalation. Oil can come into contact with skin and mucous membranes, which can create chemical burns and lead to infection. Of course, prey can ingest oil, which then they are ingested by larger sea mammals and sharks.
And there is the wild-card factor of chemical dispersants that are being used at the site of the spill to try and break up the oil and make it mix with water. Little is known about what happens to marine life exposed to that chemical soup.
Detailed wildlife response plans and cleanup work is at the ready, Charles Underwood of the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
“Right now, just out of the Louisiana sector, there are over 1,600 people engaged in that operation,” he said on Monday. “More are arriving every hour. We’ve got folks already trained, and a database of people who can volunteer in recovering animals and taking them to cleanup sites.”