The Beacon

Studies Begin to Reveal Effects of Gulf Oil Spill

Caesar grunts, damselfish and amberjacks in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Carlos Suarez

A week from today marks the one year anniversary of the BP oil spill, and the effects of the spill on the gulf’s ecosystems and wildlife are beginning to come into view, though the full effects won’t be understood for years.

This week the New York Times published an overview of the latest findings. The good news is that although miles of marsh are still oiled and tar balls continue to wash up on beaches, the Gulf of Mexico can thank its oil-eating bacteria for digesting some of the crude oil and the methane gas.

Not all the news is so good, however. Here are some of the latest findings about Gulf wildlife:

The Unknowns: First of all, for every bird, dolphin or sea turtle found beached or floating at sea, a much larger number died. After the Exxon Valdez accident, 30,000 birds were found, but 250,000 were eventually estimated to have been killed by the oil. Scientists are now trying to determine the “death multipliers” for the Gulf spill.

A group of biologists from the University of British Columbia recently said that the multiplier for that group should be around 50. So although 115 cetaceans were found dead or stranded during the spill and in the months immediately after, they might represent 5,000 actual deaths.

It will also take quite a while to know some of the consequences for Gulf fisheries. As the NYT points out, it was three years after the Exxon Valdez spill that the herring fishery suddenly collapsed.

Dolphins:  Scientists confirmed last week that they have discovered oil on dead dolphins found along the Gulf Coast. Fifteen of the 406 dolphins that have washed ashore in the last 14 months had oil on their bodies, according to NOAA scientists. The oil found on eight of those dolphins has been linked to the BP oil spill.

Sea Turtles: During the spill, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service moved about 28,000 eggs from sea turtles’ nests on at-risk beaches in Alabama to the coast of Florida. While 51 percent of the eggs hatched -- which is roughly average -- it will be another two decades or so before the surviving hatchlings return to Florida to lay their eggs. That’s just one indication of the effects of the spill and/or rescue efforts; in truth we won't know for a long time, if ever, the full effects of the spill on sea turtle populations in the gulf.

Corals: One scientist and her team took sediment samples at several different times and found the gulf floor covered with dead, oily bacteria. At every one of the sites she sampled, she found dead invertebrates, such as worms, starfish, and coral. Another biologist documented dead fan corals seven miles from the wellhead, most likely killed by oil plumes in the deep sea.

Bluefin Tuna: One fisheries professor who has been monitoring bluefin tuna larvae says that oil did affect some of their spawning grounds, though not all; he wouldn’t say the percentage of larvae that might have been killed, but said it was not a total wipeout, as some worried.

As the upcoming spill anniversary reminds us, offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous. Don’t allow another oil spill to threaten our coasts and wildlife. Call Congress and urge them to vote against reckless legislation that would allow more offshore drilling. 


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