You Are Still Underestimating How Deadly the BP Gulf Oil Spill Will Be


In this second installment of a two-part series, I talk to scientists about the devastation the Gulf Oil Spill may bring, and examine why the legacy of the Valdez spill left us underestimating the extent of damage such disasters wreak on wildlife. Part one can be found here. Image via the AP

Despite the great number of threats ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico are facing, powerful calls have been sounded to postpone any doom-saying -- The New York Times reporter John Broder, for instance, argues that the real tolls cannot be accurately known for years, and that perhaps some dangers are being overstated. But many conservation scientists insist that real damage is already being done to ecosystems right now -- and some believe it will indeed be as bad for wildlife as the Valdez spill twenty years ago.As Bad for Wildlife as the Exxon Valdez Spill?
Mike Beck, senior marine scientist for the Nature Conservancy, thinks "we'll see slightly lower numbers of animals impacted," but because many animal populations around the Gulf are already stressed, "the proportional impact on those would be greater." In other words, there will likely be a lower gross number of animals killed, but deeper damage done to already struggling populations.

Which suggests that no matter how great the scope of the ongoing disaster in the Gulf ends up being -- whether it's as big as the Valdez spill or smaller -- the impact it's going to have on wildlife is indeed going to be significant. And more complicated than many fathom.


Image via LA Times
Damage to the Marine Food Chain
Louisiana is the biggest producer of seafood in the lower 48, thanks to that abundance of shellfish in the oyster reefs and beyond. But both shellfish and fish populations face an additional threat: oil is bad news for plankton. Beck explains that as the oil kills plankton, the fish, shrimp, and crabs who feed on it die too, drastically reducing their populations. This process has already begun, he says.

And what happens after the oil spill is finally cleaned up, and the nation's biggest shellfish industry is ready to get back on track? Well, then diminished shellfish populations -- overfished even before the spill -- may face serious problems for generations to come.

Too Many Hazards to Count
The oil poses many more dangers to wildlife: It may kill off the critically endangered Bluefin Tuna's eggs. The fumes can be deadly to mammals like bobcats that inhale it. Some of the oil will likely get sucked into the Loop current, where it will be pulled through the Florida Keys, threatening coral reefs. And the NRDC's Regan Nelson tells me that there's a new chemical dispersant that's being used in the cleanup effort -- it's toxic, it's largely experimental, and it's being sprayed in abundance into the ocean. It's unclear at this point what exactly its long term impact on wildlife could be.

The underlying point is that oil-choked mammals and birds are barely half the story -- though the reductive sympathy encouraged in the inevitable photo essays may entice your gut to think otherwise. But long after the last photographer snaps a shot of an oblivious oil-coated pelican -- decades after, most likely -- a whole host of threats could continue to plague ecosystems all around the Gulf.

More on the BP Gulf Oil Spill
Gulf Oil Spill: The Black and Oily Demise of Wildlife (Slideshow)
The Daily Show Takes On the Gulf Oil Spill (Video)

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