While oil-covered birds have become an emblematic image of catastrophic oil spills, sea birds aren’t the only ones affected. Oil is extremely toxic to all wildlife, and the toxic effects on marine life begins as soon as the oil hits the water.
Here are 10 examples of how marine life may be affected by the Gulf spill in the coming days, weeks and years
1. Atlantic bluefin tuna: The Gulf is one of only two nurseries worldwide for the severely overfished Atlantic bluefin tuna. Each spring (April – June), bluefin gather in the Gulf to spawn, and more than 90 percent of the bluefin tuna spawning here are returning to the place they were born. Fish larvae and eggs are particularly susceptible to negative effects of oil, and this generation of critically endangered tuna could be severely impacted.
2. Snapper and grouper: These reef fish support fishing communities all along the Gulf coast. Gag grouper spawning peaks in early April and red snapper spawning starts in late May, peaking from June-August. Since the spill is taking place during peak spawning time for these commercially important species, the stocks could be affected.
3. Fish larvae: The Gulf of Mexico is an important spawning area for other fish, too. Fish larvae are particularly sensitive to oil. Even at very low levels, oil can cause growth deformities and death in fish larvae.
4. Oysters and other bivalves: Bivalves are filter feeders and pull toxic substances such as oil out of the water as they feed. These substances can accumulate in their flesh and pass up the food web as they are eaten by other species, including humans. Long-term contamination can occur when large amounts of oil are trapped in the sediment.
5. Spiny lobsters: Lobsters begin their life swimming and floating at the surface – which means they may now be swimming in an oil slick. Young lobsters from the Caribbean, Mexico, and the US swim through the Gulf of Mexico all year round. Juvenile lobsters ride the current toward the coast to land in seagrass beds – which is in the same direction that the oil is headed.
6. Sea Turtles: Several species of endangered sea turtles (Kemp's ridley, hawksbill, green and leatherback) are found in the Gulf waters and nest on its beaches. As air breathers, sea turtles can ingest oil, which can block their airways, fill their stomachs, and damage their tissues and organs. Some turtles in the Gulf are about to start their nesting season, while others nest all year round. Oil on beaches can cause developmental defects and death for turtle eggs. In addition, oiled beaches and surrounding waters provide another obstacle that hatchlings must overcome.
7. Whales and Dolphins: 28 species of whales and dolphins are known to inhabit the Gulf, and 20 live there year-round, including bottlenose dolphins and endangered North Atlantic right and sperm whales. Bottlenose dolphins are the most common species of cetacean in the Gulf, and they breed in the summer and give birth from March to May, so their young are now dealing with the oil spill. Like sea turtles, they are vulnerable to oil as air breathers who spend a lot of time on the surface.
8. Seabirds: Many species of seabirds are found in the Gulf, especially in the mangroves and wetlands – areas that are extremely difficult to clean up when contaminated by oil. Coastal birds such as brown and white pelicans, terns, gulls, shorebirds, skimmers and herons are highly at risk if the oil comes ashore. Nesting and feeding areas, such as marshes and beaches, could become oiled, and birds can transfer oil to their eggs with their feathers and feet.
9. Brown pelicans: These birds are permanent residents of the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to becoming coated with oil while feeding, pelicans may accidentally transfer oil from their feet to their eggs, which are particularly vulnerable to oil. Brown pelicans were only removed from the US endangered species list last year, and they are slow to reproduce and have just started their breeding season.
10. Fragile Habitats: Habitats such as coral reefs, wetlands, mangroves, marshes, canyons, seagrass and Sargassum beds are found throughout the Gulf. These fragile habitats provide feeding, breeding and spawning grounds for a multitude of species, and could be devastated by an oil spill.