Long Road to Recovery for Gulf Wildlife

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on July 19, 2010

As I write this, there is good news in the Gulf of Mexico. A cap placed on the hemorrhaging Deepwater Horizon well has, for now, staunched the flow of oil. Though the cap may not hold, it appears that the worst of the spill may finally be coming to an end. Far less certain is whether the worst is over for the animals who call the Gulf home.

The most visible victims of the spill are those animals who inhabit the surface waters and shorelines of the Gulf. Confronting a deadly killer for which millions of years of evolution could not have prepared them, pelagic animals, including shorebirds, marine mammals, sea turtles and many other species continue to raise their young, eat, swim and nest as they always have. As they come in contact with oil they may die lingering deaths from acute toxicity or, in the case of many birds, hypothermia – as oiled feathers can no long provide the insulation needed to maintain a healthy body temperature.

Beneath the surface and along the seabed the effects of the spill are practically invisible and poorly understood. Much of the oil has not surfaced, either due to the extreme depth and cold at the mile-deep wellhead or due to the use of chemical dispersants which break the oil into smaller droplets that disperse in the water and linger below the surface. One has to imagine that driving BP’s unprecedented dumping of more the two million gallons of the toxic dispersant, Corexit, is its desire to keep public-relations-unfriendly oil out of sight and out of mind.

What does that mean for the Gulf? No one is certain. Many biologists claim that the use of dispersants will only compound the effects of the oil but it will be nearly impossible to document its effects due to the scale of the spill and the difficulty in determining mortality. Whale sharks, for example, a threatened species which feed by skimming plankton on the surface of the ocean, are now moving north towards the Mississippi delta – and into the slick. Like all sharks, these leviathans will sink when they die. On the bottom, a recently discovered species of tube worm has individuals that are over 400 years old and scientists estimate some may be more than 1000 years old. The fate of whale sharks, sea turtles and millennia old worms may hang in the balance.

But there is good news too. The successful test of the latest well cap could mean the spill is drawing to an end, which will also mean the end of dispersant use. In addition, the lawsuit filed by ALDF and three other environmental and animal protection groups has forced BP and the Coast Guard to initiate procedures to prevent the burning alive of sea turtles and other marine animals in the controlled burns used to reduce surface oil. And, with the help of animal advocates, this spill will result in new laws requiring systems for preventing and containing future accidents, for example, simultaneous drilling of emergency relief wells along with any new drilling operations. Meanwhile, ALDF is continuing to seek ways to minimize the harm currently being done to animals in the Gulf.

Please stay tuned for news about our pending lawsuit against BP, and for other actions you can take to help the animal victims of this tragedy, by signing up for our e-alerts and e-newsletters. The animals need you to be their voice.


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