From Dolphins to Loons, Gulf Species Still Reeling From Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Four years after the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, wildlife is struggling to recover.

Gulf Wildlife Still Reeling From Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

(Photo: Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Nearly four years after the BP oil spill killed 11 crew members of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and spewed more than 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, several species of wildlife are still fighting to recover.

A new report from the National Wildlife Federation, "Four Years Into the Gulf Oil Disaster: Still Waiting for Restoration," found unusually high death and disease rates among dolphins, turtles, and other marine species in the Gulf.

"Wildlife in the Gulf are still feeling the impacts of the spill," Doug Inkley, senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Bottlenose dolphins in oiled areas are still sick and dying, and the evidence is stronger than ever that these deaths are connected to the Deepwater Horizon. The science is telling us that this is not over."

The report analyzed data on 14 Gulf wildlife species and found daunting roadblocks to their full recovery in the still-contaminated waters.

Oyster reproduction remained low in large swaths of the Gulf at least through the fall of 2012. Petrochemicals from the Deepwater disaster were linked to irregular heartbeats in bluefin and yellowfin tuna. Loons have elevated levels of petrochemicals in their bloodstream. And sperm whales have high levels of “DNA-damaging metals” found in oil from BP’s well.

The spill’s effects on dolphins and turtles are particularly distressing.

“Bottlenose dolphins in a heavily oiled area of the Louisiana coast are sick and dying due to the ongoing impacts of the oil,” Ryan Fikes, staff scientist at the NWF’s Gulf Restoration Campaign, said in an email.

Scientists are particularly alarmed by abnormally high rates of stillborn dolphins found in the Gulf, Fikes said. “It’s an indication that something is not right in the ecosystem.”

As for the turtles, “tens of thousands” of them were “likely within the area of the Gulf that was oiled on the surface,” Fikes said. “There are signs that the oil disaster has stalled decades of progress for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.” Once approaching extinction, the species had been coming back steadily for the past three decades. But no longer.

Each of the past three years, some 500 turtles have been found dead in the spill-affected area, a huge spike over normal rates. “Nearly three-quarters of the sea turtles found dead in 2013 were Kemp’s ridleys,” Fikes said, “and the numbers of Kemp’s ridley nests in the Gulf flattened starting in 2010.”

BP claims that Gulf waters have been cleaned up and the crisis is over. But Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, NWF senior policy specialist for Gulf and coastal restoration, noted in a statement that three years after the spill “nearly five million pounds of oiled material from the disaster were removed from Louisiana’s coast. And that’s just what we’ve seen. An unknown amount of oil remains deep in the Gulf."

BP and affiliated companies are in federal court to set civil penalties for the environmental devastation unleashed by the blowout. According to Fikes, Clean Water Act fines could reach $17.6 billion, while the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, still under way, “could come to billions more.”

Restoring the Gulf ecosystem is not only good for local flora and fauna; it can also boost the local economy. “Restoration projects can have as high as 15-to-1 return on investment,” Fikes said. But he warned that “without transparency and accountability, some of these oil-spill-related dollars could be funneled to pet development projects that could actually harm the health of the Gulf.”

The public can and should play a role in demanding that only the most worthy projects are funded, Fikes said. “Call your senator and ask them to ensure that RESTORE Act funds are invested in the Gulf environment,” he said. “Most importantly, as time passes, remember the disaster and demand that BP be held fully accountable.”

Much data is tied up in court and unavailable to scientists, perpetuating gaps in knowledge that must be filled before full restoration can occur.

“The Gulf of Mexico,” Fikes said, “is a dynamic and complex ecosystem, and scientists will still be unraveling it for years to come.”

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