Archive for Wildlife
By Matthew Phillips, Outreach Assistant, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition, National Wildlife Federation
Last Thursday, the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition team traveled south to Plaquemines Parish to tour some of Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands. Andy Buchsbaum, National Wildlife Federation’s Vice President of Conservation Action, was in town to see our work firsthand. We packed the cars and drove to Buras, La to meet Ryan Lambert, owner of Cajun Fishing Adventures. We piled into two bay boats and set off through the marshes of Fort St. Philip. He explained how this natural opening on the east side of the Mississippi River was loading sediment into the marshes, building ground for plants to grow on. He has seen how rich and diverse the vegetation has become, and how wildlife has returned in droves in the last few years.
At the end of the day the team gathered at Woodland Plantation for happy hour and an amazing meal. Everyone agreed that seeing the coast we are fighting to restore is a crucial part of our work. Our supporters in Plaquemines Parish, ground zero for Louisiana Coastal Restoration, are some of the most fervent advocates of restoration. Having passionate people explaining what the coast means to them while immersed in the environment they love was invigorating. We returned to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Washington, D.C., with a renewed sense of commitment to the Louisiana coast.
By Ashley Peters, Communications Associate, National Audubon Society
In May, a group of more than 30 volunteers gathered at the Grand Isle Community Center to learn about issues facing Louisiana’s beach-nesting birds and how people can help. Cute, fuzzy chicks of birds such as Least Terns and Wilson’s Plovers need our help during each spring and summer to protect them from human disturbance and other threats.
“There are many ways birds and people can share the beach, it’s just a matter of awareness,” says Erik Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s Director of Bird Conservation. “We need help informing beach-goers about what beach-nesting birds need to successfully raise their little ones. These threatened birds need safe, open, sandy areas and we hope folks will respect the birds by keeping their distance.”
The volunteer training included information on how to identify shorebirds, how to interpret bird behavior, and ways to help beach-nesting birds succeed. The training was followed by a crawfish boil celebration to show appreciation for new and current volunteers, as well as program partners.
Least Tern and Wilson’s Plover chicks are camouflaged to avoid predation and nests are also hard to see because the birds lay their eggs in shallow depressions, or “scrapes,” in the sand. Audubon Louisiana marks sensitive beach areas with signs and symbolic fencing to prevent people from accidentally entering nesting sites. This reduces the chances of eggs and chicks being inadvertently trampled, run over, or harmed in other ways if parent birds are flushed (or chased away) from nests.
In addition to ensuring there is suitable habitat for birds through the implementation of Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and other initiatives, Audubon organizes the Coastal Bird Stewardship Program as well as the Coastal Bird Survey to monitor and encourage birds to successfully live and breed on beaches.
Next time you’re on the beach, remember the following:
- Keep your distance: Sensitive nesting areas are posted with signs. When an adult bird is flushed or chased away, chicks and eggs are vulnerable to predators and overheating.
- Keep pets leashed: Nesting birds are very sensitive – even good pets are perceived as predators and will disturb nesting activities.
- Take your trash with you and dispose of fishing line properly: Birds can become easily entangled in loose line, plastic bags, and other unsightly garbage.
- Please do not feed the wildlife: This will attract predators, like gulls, crows, and other animals that will eat bird eggs and chicks.
- Get involved: Volunteer stewards help teach beachgoers how to help protect these vulnerable birds. Join our mailing list to receive updates, news, and notifications about volunteer opportunities.
To learn more about how you can help birds, visit La.Audubon.org/coastalstewardship or email Louisiana@Audubon.org. To learn more about Audubon’s Coastal Stewardship Programs, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-7O2vfEIG8No Comments
In the wake of the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history, Audubon is working to protect bird populations and restore critical habitat across all five Gulf states.
By Chris Canfield, Vice President, National Audubon Society, Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway
This post has been cross-posted from an article originally published on the National Audubon Society’s website.
This Monday marks five years since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, claiming 11 lives and unleashing the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history. In that time, the National Audubon Society has built on its 100-year legacy of protecting bird populations throughout the Gulf Coast and has extended its footprint of stewardship across all five states.
The Gulf Coast is an important breeding ground and migratory rest stop for many coastal birds, including Brown Pelicans, Least Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, Sanderlings and other vulnerable species. BP oil reached the coastal habitats – on which these birds rely during shorebird migration – at the height of nesting season for breeding waterbirds, resulting in the death of an estimated 1 million birds.
In the immediate aftermath of the spill, Audubon staff and hundreds of volunteers were on the ground, facilitating transport of oiled birds for cleaning and care, protecting critical habitat and nesting grounds and being the voice for birds throughout the disaster. In the years that followed, Audubon engaged its network of volunteers to help pass the historic RESTORE Act—ensuring that a majority of funds from the Clean Water Act fines BP pays will be allocated towards restoration efforts. In order to understand the immediate and long-term effects on birds, Audubon scientists also developed the Audubon Coastal Bird Survey, a citizen-scientist effort to monitor the health of coastal populations and to provide a better accounting of these populations going forward. The program has been expanded to all five Gulf states.
Five years have come and gone since the oil spill, and as the ongoing effects continue to be felt, the National Audubon Society is focused on ramping up its important stewardship for birds at more than 200 sites across the Gulf Coast. We empower citizens and communities to protect terns and skimmers in nesting colonies, protect the access of plover chicks to their feeding grounds, and oversee critical waterbird colonies from Florida to Texas. We still await assessment of full fines to BP and others involved with the catastrophic spill, but we have been successful putting available funds to work on expanded coastal bird protections.
To all of our volunteers, supporters and friends who have been there for the Gulf and its bird populations, thank you for helping us make significant progress in confronting this terrible disaster. We have a long way to go before meaningful restoration is achieved, so please stay engaged and stay committed. In the meantime, I encourage you to share this video to inform others about the important work Audubon is doing throughout the Gulf Coast and sign this petition asking BP to stop its campaign of misinformation and pay for the damage done.No Comments
This post has been cross-posted from an article originally published on the National Audubon Society’s website
By: Melanie Driscoll, Director of Bird Conservation, Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway, Erik Johnson, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Louisiana
A BP-authored report claiming that the Gulf has recovered is inaccurate and insulting—here’s why.
Nearly five years after the largest accidental marine oil spill in U.S. history, BP is doing its best to convince the public that the 4.9 million barrels of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico have done no lasting damage. That’s the message found in The Gulf of Mexico Environmental Recovery and Restoration report the company released three weeks ago.
Based on what the report does present, it’s obvious that BP chose to ignore recent research that shows the ongoing impact of the oil spill, particularly on birds (pp 15-17 of report). That BP ignores peer-reviewed science is nothing new—they have been denying culpability and the validity of peer-reviewed, published research since the spill itself. Meanwhile, their own conclusions lack peer-review and they have not released their methodology. Because of this lack of transparency, BP has made claims that are impossible to refute or verify.
One of the government agencies responsible for monitoring the Gulf health following the oil spill—the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program—is expected to hold itself to a high standard of independent scientific peer-review as it completes its Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). While we await the NRDA studies to be completed and released, BP has flaunted such professional standards in its allusions to NRDA findings that cannot be verified at this stage. The trustees of NRDA themselves called BP’s recent report “inappropriate as well as premature.”
Along with others in the scientific community, the National Audubon Society rejects BP’s claims. While their report leaves much to criticize, here are its five main flaws:
- Their conclusions are not credible given lack of peer-review, questionable methodology and premature conclusions.
They claim “search teams likely found 97 percent of large birds and 78 percent of small birds.” These numbers are inconceivable to any researcher or birder who has looked for birds on a beach. It stands to reason that a detection rate of 97 percent as claimed by BP is unlikely, even for living and mobile birds; their estimate seems grossly optimistic compared to detection rates published widely in the scientific literature. In addition, BP compared their estimate of searcher efficiency for carcasses placed on beaches to the searcher efficiency across sandy beach, rocky beach, and marsh habitats. Detection rates are known to vary widely based on factors such as carcass coloration and habitat, and the actual searches in the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred across marsh, mangrove, rocky beach, and sandy beach habitats. Attacking a single parameter from a complex study, and doing so using an apples-to-oranges comparison, is disingenuous and misleading.
- The Gulf of Mexico ecosystem has not returned to a pre-oil spill “baseline condition”.
First of all, the oil is not gone. Significant deposits (up to 230,000 barrels) of oil have been discovered in the sediment on the Gulf floor. This oil regularly washes ashore during storms, re-oiling marshes and beaches. In October 2014, researchers discovered a 1,250-square-mile “bathtub ring” of oil on the Gulf floor–equivalent to the size of Rhode Island. Indeed, as the BP report was released a 22,000-pound tar mat was being removed from East Grand Terre Island in Barataria Bay, LA.
BP’s conclusions are incredibly premature. With lagged effects, trophic cascades, food web effects, and repeated re-oiling of the coast, we could be seeing surprises and environmental effects for years to come on birds and on the entire ecosystem.
Erosion is forever. Land and crucial habitats have disappeared. It’s impossible to return to a “baseline” when the land that composed that baseline and is crucial to coastal bird populations has disappeared. Studies show that marsh that was heavily oiled was undercut and eroded back, creating ragged marsh edges that were unoiled or lightly oiled. The scientists have then seen a wave of erosion of these unoiled or lightly oiled marsh, as waves reshape the ragged marsh edge to create a new, smoother edge. Not only has much of the heavily oiled marsh eroded, but marsh that was less damaged has followed.
- Damage to birds from the BP oil spill is evident and has been well documented, contrary to what BP reports.
In the 95 days following the oil spill, conservative estimates are that hundreds of thousands to more than a million birds died.
This acute damage does not take into account the molecular, cellular, reproductive, and developmental damage that may accumulate in birds for years to come. That is significant, it is long-term, and it matters.
Birds exposed to oil during their early development may accumulate damage that causes failed reproduction. Additionally, many long-lived species like pelicans, terns, and egrets do not breed until their second, third, or fourth year of life, meaning the young exposed to oil early in their lives hadn’t started breeding in 2011, making BP’s conclusions based on 2011 information premature.
- More studies are needed to understand the ongoing and long-term effects on bird populations.
In other species, lagged and trophic level effects have resulted in increasing effects from oil being detected over time since the disaster. Very few studies on bird productivity have been published that looked beyond the 2010-2011 nesting season. More studies are needed to draw broad conclusions.
Scientifically, the most reliable way to study productivity is to compare productivity of birds exposed to oil and not exposed to oil within the same season. The only study of which we are aware that has used this reliable methodology is a study of the Seaside Sparrow, which showed reduced nest success for sparrows on oiled sites in 2012 and 2013.
- BP’s use of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data is flawed and their summaries of other data are incomplete and misleading.
BP misused CBC data to obscure potential impacts. It’s likely they used data from well outside the impacted areas. Particularly, Sandwich Terns and Northern Gannets are not counted by CBC participants 10-100 times more than Piping Plovers in the impacted areas. The numbers they used for Red Knots appear to include the entire rufa subspecies, which mainly winters in the Tierra del Fuego region in southern Argentina and the Maranhão region of northeastern Brazil. It is difficult to tell how CBC data were used, but it is clear from the relative abundance of some species that data from outside the Gulf were included in analyses. Using broader data from other regions could mask any local and regional changes in populations due to the oil spill. Without describing their methods, it is apparent that BP’s report represents a misuse of Audubon’s publicly available data.
BP reported oiling rates from long after the oil well was capped, resulting in oiling rates that appear to be very low: In its report, BP cites data saying “researchers saw no visible oil in 99 percent of the roughly 500,000 live bird observations from May 2010 to March 2011.” A study following the Deepwater Horizon spill showed that 8.6 percent of captured shorebirds showed evidence of oiling, indicating that BP’s observational evidence may have underestimated exposure by as much as an order of magnitude.
BP selected a study that appeared to show no effects on birds to highlight a success that is likely just a lack of use of the oiled region: In BP’s reference to the Northern Gannet publication, researchers in this paper used light-level geolocators to determine wintering locations of Northern Gannets. Digging into the details of the paper, it is clear that only a small sample of the researcher’s birds wintered in the Gulf of Mexico (8 birds in their study) and that the Gulf birds foraged in areas primarily >100 miles away from the spill site, i.e., well outside of area of the most devastating impacts. Thus it may be no surprise that these few birds did not show elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (harmful chemicals from oil) levels as they were not in the spill zone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s published account of bird deaths following the spill paints a different picture—Northern Gannets were one of the most frequently encountered dead bird after the spill.
BP incorrectly concluded from a published study that researchers did not find evidence that variations in age classes of Brown Pelicans on Louisiana barrier islands were related to the oil spill. However, the paper specifically states “…additional research is required to evaluate potential long-term population trends.” Also, “Care should be taken in interpretation of our result as a lack of effect [of oil] on demography because there are combinations of spill-related reductions in fecundity and age-specific mortality that could result in no changes in age structure.” One scenario that’s easy to imagine is that all age classes were reduced similarly. In short, like the authors state, there are many possible scenarios that could influence their findings.
Despite BP’s claims, we may not know the full impact of the oil spill for decades to come. Even more, we will not achieve lasting, meaningful restoration in the Gulf Coast until BP quits stalling, quits the legal and publicity campaign and actually funds full restoration.
Sign this petition telling BP to stop their delay tactics and fully fund Gulf restoration.No Comments
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Emily Guidry Schatzel, National Wildlife Federation, 225.253.9781, email@example.com
Jacques Hebert, National Audubon Society, 504.264.6849, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Van Cleve, Environmental Defense Fund, 202.553.2543, email@example.com
Five Years Later: Gulf Oil Disaster’s Impacts to Habitat and Wildlife Still Evident
Leading Conservation Groups Highlight BP Spill’s Ongoing Effects, Continued Need for Restoration
(New Orleans, LA—March 31, 2015) Five years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and spewing at least 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, leading national and local conservation organizations working on Mississippi River Delta and Gulf Coast restoration – Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation – released the following statement:
“Despite BP’s claims that the Gulf oil disaster and its ecological impacts are over, ongoing research and present-day observations in areas that were heavily oiled tell a different story.
“New independent scientific studies provide evidence that the full consequences of the spill to wildlife and habitats are still unfolding. From dolphins to sea turtles to birds, we still are seeing the real and lasting environmental impacts of one of the worst oil spills in our nation’s history.
“BP claims the nearly 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf has not negatively affected the ecosystem. But continued surveillance of areas like Barataria Bay, where thick oil coated vital wildlife habitat, including marshes and barrier islands, reveals lasting effects of the spill. Cat Island, a mangrove island that was heavily oiled, was once a lush, thriving rookery for brown pelicans and other birds, but today it is gray, lifeless and has nearly disappeared. Other coastal areas damaged by the spill are also still in need of repair.
“To this day, oil is still being found, most recently in the form of a 25,000-pound tar mat located on a Louisiana barrier island, near where 40,000 pounds of BP-oiled material was unearthed two years ago. It’s time for BP to put the publicity campaign aside, stop shirking responsibility and finally ‘make it right’ for the people, wildlife and habitats of the Gulf Coast.
“The oil disaster wreaked incomparable damage to an already-stressed Gulf Coast ecosystem. In Louisiana, the oil spill dealt another blow to an area ravaged by land loss – since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land, or an area the size of Delaware. Nowhere is restoration more needed than the Mississippi River Delta, which is the cornerstone of a healthy Gulf ecosystem.
“Restoration solutions are within reach and plans are in place, but implementation of restoration plans cannot fully begin until BP accepts responsibility and pays its fines. Thanks to vehicles like Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and the historic RESTORE Act of 2012, which ensures that the Clean Water Act fines BP pays will be used for restoration, the Gulf Coast can make headway on real restoration projects that can make a difference. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore the health of our wetlands, revive Gulf Coast economies that depend on them, and make the Gulf Coast better than it was before the spill, but we must begin restoration now. The Gulf Coast – and the people, wildlife and jobs that depend on it – cannot wait any longer.”
Since the BP oil disaster five years ago, ongoing findings deliver truths omitted by BP’s ads: the oil disaster’s negative effects are increasingly clear, present and far from resolved.
A new infographic depicts ongoing impacts of the Gulf oil disaster five years later. And over the past year alone, new scientific research has surfaced:
- A 2014 study found evidence of a 1,250-square-mile area of oil contamination on the ocean floor around the Macondo wellhead in deep Gulf sediments.
- A new NOAA study found a large number of dead dolphins in heavily oiled places, including Barataria Bay, La.
- Recent studies estimate 800,000 birds died as a result of being exposed to BP oil.
- Modeling for a recent stock assessment projected that between 20,000 and 60,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles died in 2010 as a result of the spill.
- A 2014 study found concentrations of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) – which can cause harmful effects in many birds, fish and wildlife – in Barataria and Terrebonne marshes, which may persist for decades.
- A 2012 study found that oiled marshes in Barataria Bay eroded at double the rate of non-oiled marshes.
By Matthew Phillips, National Wildlife Federation
When trying to understand how ecosystems function, scientists often look at food webs–the complex relationships between animals, insects, plants, and bacteria that govern who eats whom.
Food webs in the Gulf of Mexico are as complex as they come. The different habitat types, from forests to wetlands to ocean, mean a diverse array of species. The Gulf food web would be nearly impossible to understand in its entirety, but we can simplify it into a chain to help us think about it. Plants form the base of this chain, as they convert sunlight into the energy that fuels the entire system. Plants are eaten by herbivores, who are then eaten by larger organisms. Scientists can learn a lot about how an ecosystem functions by studying the ends of the chain–the plants at the bottom and the animals that occupy the top. However, it’s the species in the middle that provide crucial linkages.
One recent study, “Disturbance and recovery of salt marsh arthropod communities following BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill” assessed how arthropods living in the Gulf wetlands responded to the BP oil spill. Arthropods are an enormous group of organisms, including insects, spiders, crabs, crustaceans, and just about anything else with a hard outer shell that lacks a vertebral column. The authors looked at the heart of the food chain: the huge number of arthropod species that provide links between fish, birds, and other animals. If the oil spill affected these populations, they reasoned, the effects would ripple through the rest of ecosystem, causing unpredictable damage.
They measured the density of arthropod populations in patches of Spartina alterniflora, a grass that dominates Gulf coast marshes, while oil was washing up on marsh shoreline in 2010 and again one year later. For comparison, they visited 12 marshes with oil and 10 with no oil. They ensured the vegetation and soil were similar in each location to negate any differences between habitat types.
Their results were both striking and hopeful. During 2010, they found half as many arthropods in the marshes that had oil as in those with no oil. Because birds, fish, and even plants depend on these organisms, losing half the population could potentially devastate the ecosystem. But by 2011 arthropods in the oiled marshes were back at the same densities as in the unoiled marshes. It seemed that arthropods were primarily susceptible to the direct effects of oil. Oil may remain in wetlands for decades after a spill, but it usually seeps into the soils under the marsh grass. The arthropods in this study lived in the grasses above the marsh surface. Once the oil disappeared into the soil, their populations returned to normal.
This study presents a more important conclusion than simply the resilience of arthropods to oil. Ecosystems are intricate webs of interactions between the living and non-living environment, and looking at one organism, relationship, or phenomenon may not reveal any significant truth about the ecosystem as a whole. Except for a thin sheen of oil, the marshes in this study appeared healthy. But, in fact, oil had wiped out half the arthropods. We should treat ecosystems as the fragile, profoundly complex systems they are. Protecting them should be the top priority. Any disturbance can have widespread and unpredictable consequences.
To learn more about our coalition and the plans to restore our marshes and wetlands, click here. More information about the ongoing effects of the BP oil spill can be found here: "Understanding effects of chemical dispersants on marine wildlife is critical to whale population" and "Five years later, scientists gather to assess ongoing impact of BP oil spill."No Comments
This was originally posted on the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Promise blog.
By Emily Guidry Schatzel, National Wildlife Federation
One day after BP released a report saying the Gulf is on the road to recovery, we took a trip to one of the most impacted areas from the BP oil spill—Barataria Bay, Louisiana. From a dead baby dolphin to devastation at a bird rookery to active clean-up crews removing tons of oil from barrier islands, we found a very different picture from what BP painted in its report.
We started the day off at Cat Island. Once a vibrant barrier island covered in brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, terns and gulls, it was hit hard by the oil during the spill. Today, the island is unrecognizable. The thick mangrove forests are all dead and the island is essentially a small spit of mud with the skeletal remains of vegetation, hosting just a handful of birds. Coastal Louisiana is already losing a football field of land every hour, and studies show that the oil accelerated this erosion.
Next we went to East Grand Terre, a nearby barrier island. Roughly 20 workers were out there cleaning up oil. BP confirmed this latest clean-up was part of a process to remove a 25,000-pound tar mat found in late February 2015. Finding oil here is not a huge surprise–two years ago, a 40,000 pound tar mat was found in the same area.
Even worse, in that same area, we also saw a mother dolphin attempting to resuscitate her dead infant. She was surrounded by a group of dolphins–all of them visibly in distress. Such a tragic sight was difficult to witness.
On the same day, The Lens reported that two dead adult bottlenose dolphins washed up on nearby Queen Bess Island.
We don’t know why these particular dolphins died. But we do know that NOAA has determined bottlenose dolphins in this area of Barataria Bay are sick—very sick. They have symptoms of oil exposure—unusual lung masses, adrenal gland problems, even teeth that are falling out. Based on the study, NOAA concluded that “the health effects seen in the Barataria Bay dolphins are significant and likely will lead to reduced survival and ability to reproduce.”
We also know that dolphin deaths in Louisiana remain four times higher than average. And that high numbers of stillborn and premature dolphins have been found in the northern Gulf every spring since 2010.2 Comments
This was originally posted on the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Promise blog.
By Ryan Fikes, National Wildlife Federation
BP has just released a new report on the state of the Gulf, called Gulf of Mexico: Environmental Recovery and Restoration. The glossy report is filled with footnotes and citations, but leaves key pieces of science out.
Here are ten important things BP’s latest report strategically didn’t mention:
- Dolphins died before the spill – from freshwater
The report says: “An “unusual mortality event” (UME) involving an abnormally high number of dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico began in February 2010, months before the Deepwater Horizon accident.”
What it leaves out: The deaths of a cluster of dolphins during the months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded were likely caused by extended exposure to fresh water and unusually cold weather. (Source: NOAA)
- Gulf dolphins are now very susceptible to an old disease
The report says: “NOAA has said that brucella, a bacterium that can infect animals, is “a common thread” in a number of the animals examined. Nearly one-third of the dolphins tested as of Nov. 25, 2014 were positive for brucella.”
What it leaves out: In 2011, Teri Rowles, the coordinator of NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program said, “Severe environmental stress, including from exposure to oil, could have reduced the animals’ ability to fight infection.”(Source: NOAA)
And in 2013, NOAA released a study showing that dolphins in heavily-oiled Barataria Bay had adrenal gland problems consistent with oil exposure that would in fact harm their ability to fight infections.(Source: Environmental Science & Technology)
- For the Kemp's ridley, anything less than an increase is a decrease
The report says: “For Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, nesting numbers the two years after the accident were above historical averages.”
What it leaves out: Up until 2009, Kemp’s ridley nests were increasing exponentially (15-19%) every year. In 2011 and 2012, the number of Kemp’s ridley nests—while essentially the same as the
numbers seen in 2009—were still below expectations. Even more troubling are the significant decreases in nests seen in 2010, 2013, and 2014. (Source: Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission)
- Sperm whales in the Gulf have high levels of toxic metals
The report says: “While data analysis is ongoing, BP has not seen any evidence indicating that oil or dispersant compounds from the Deepwater Horizon accident have impacted the health of whales in the Gulf.”
What it leaves out: Researchers have found higher levels of DNA-damaging metals such as chromium and nickel in sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico compared to sperm whales elsewhere in the world. (Source: Environmental Science & Technology)
And a recent study found that the two dispersants used in the Deepwater Horizon spill—Corexit 9500 and 9527—were both found to be damaging to sperm whale cells and DNA. (Source: Aquatic Toxicology)
- Oil exposure damages fish development – in many species
The report says: “A study by university and government researchers examined the overlap between spawning habitat and oiled waters and concluded that the spawning area for bluefin tuna extended much farther west than previously known and that “the proportion of spawning habitat impacted by oil was generally predicted to be small (<10%).”
What it leaves out: Estimates vary on how many larval bluefin tuna may have been exposed. One NOAA study estimated that the figure could be as high as 20 percent. (Source: NOAA)
And a recent comprehensive laboratory study found that a chemical in Deepwater Horizon oil can cause irregular heartbeats in bluefin and yellowfin tuna that can lead to heart attacks, or even death. The resulting heartbeat changes significantly altered the development of other organs. The researchers suggest that many other vertebrate species in the Gulf could have been similarly affected. (Source: Science)
- Right after the spill, red snapper and other fish had unusual lesions
The report says: “Researchers from the University of South Alabama and Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama took samples of reef fish from the Alabama and western Florida Panhandle coasts from January 2010 to June 2011. They found no significant evidence of diseased fish in those populations.”
What it leaves out: In the aftermath of the spill, a number of fish caught in the Gulf between eastern Louisiana and western Florida had unusual lesions or rotting fins. Lesions were most common in bottom-dwelling species, including red snapper, and were particularly common north of the wellhead. (Source: Transactions of the American Fisheries Society)
- An unusual lack of young red snapper
The report says: “In an Auburn University study published in 2014, researchers found no evidence that the spill affected young red snapper populations on reefs off the Alabama coast.”
What it leaves out: Both 2010 and 2011 had the lowest numbers of juvenile red snapper seen in the eastern Gulf fishery since 1994. (Source: NOAA SEDAR)
- Seaside sparrows on oiled sites less likely to fledge
The report says: “Data from studies that BP conducted independently indicate that in 2011, the spill did not adversely impact bird productivity – how successful birds are at producing offspring. Brown pelicans, laughing gulls, great egrets, black skimmers, bald eagles and ospreys were studied.
What it leaves out: Preliminary data from 2012 and 2013 indicate that seaside sparrows from nests on unoiled sites were significantly more likely to fledge than those on oiled sites.. (Source: BioScience)
- Oil is still washing up on beaches
The report says: “Since some of the heavily oiled areas were last surveyed a year or two earlier, NRDA teams resurveyed the areas in 2014 and determined that a total of just one mile remained heavily oiled.”
What it leaves out: Recent studies of beach shoreline in Alabama suggest that tar balls are likely to continue washing up for years to come on Gulf Coast beaches, and could pose a risk to organisms living on or near those beaches. (Source: Science of the Total Environment)
- Oil remains in Louisiana's coastal marshes
The report says: “A 2012 University of Florida study that measured the rate of marsh erosion in a limited geographic area in Louisiana showed that erosion rates returned to normal 18 months after the spill and that its impact was generally limited to the edge of the marshes.”
What it leaves out: In May 2013, three years after the spill, more than 80 miles of marsh shoreline in Louisiana remained visibly oiled. The long-term effects of the oiling of Gulf marshes are still unclear and may take decades to unfold. (Source: International Oil Spill Conference)
By Matthew Phillips, National Wildlife Federation
During and after the 2010 BP oil spill, clean-up crews relied heavily on chemical dispersants to break up oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico. In total, crews used more than 2 million gallons of dispersants, namely Corexit 9500 and 9527, applying them directly to the head of the leaking well and over the surface waters of the Gulf. Dispersants break down oil into small droplets that easily mix with water and, in theory, biodegrade quickly. The intention is to reduce the amount of oil in an area, dispersing it throughout the water column. While debate continues over the efficacy of dispersants in cleaning up spills, their use continues to rise, despite little data on their suspected toxicity. For this reason, scientists have begun looking into the effects of these powerful chemicals on marine wildlife.
In a recent study out of the University of Southern Maine, “Chemical dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis are cytotoxic and genotoxic to sperm whale skin cells,” researchers tested the effects of the chemical dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527 to sperm whale skin cells. There is a small population, around 1600 sperm whales, residing in the Gulf. Since these whales inhabit part of the area inundated with oil after the BP spill, there is a high chance some of these whales came into contact with oil, and with the dispersants. With so few whales, the population is highly susceptible to disturbance: any chaotic or harmful event threatens its overall vitality. In addition, the most recent IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classified sperm whales as Vulnerable, meaning they are at risk of extinction. Therefore, understanding the effects of chemical dispersants on sperm whales is critical for ensuring the population’s health and stability.
To begin the process, researchers grew skin cells from samples obtained from Gulf whales before the spill. They applied varying concentrations of the two dispersants to the cultured cells, and measured the effects for one day. Since chemicals can be harmful in different ways, researchers studied the dispersants’ toxicity to the cells (called cytotoxicity) and to chromosomes (called genotoxicity). They found both dispersants to be poisonous to the cells, but only Corexit 9527 to be toxic to the cells’ genetic material.
Cytotoxicity and genotoxicity have different implications. A chemical that is cytotoxic –poisonous only at the cellular level—may cause fatal or non-fatal issues for individual organisms, such as skin lesions or respiratory complications. A chemical that is genotoxic, that disrupts the functions of genes, can leave an imprint on the next generation. It may cause problems in mating, reproduction, or calf development. A sperm whale exposed to Corexit 9527 may be unable to reproduce. If she can reproduce, she may have mal-formed or non-reproductive offspring.
Genotoxicity can have lingering detrimental effects on the population as a whole, endangering its future. While it would be valuable to know which dispersant is more toxic, researchers caution it is difficult to compare them because the effects are very different. Corexit 9500 was slightly more cytotoxic, but Corexit 9527 was significantly more genotoxic. Ultimately, the choice of which to use may depend on which outcome is more, or perhaps less, desirable.
There is no way to determine how many whales were exposed to dispersants, nor the degree of exposure. But a 2014 study citing widespread health problems among Gulf marine mammals, including complications in fetus development, gives cause for concern. The population’s size, the toxicity of chemical dispersants, and reports of toxin-related health problems make clear that Gulf sperm whales are at risk. Researchers will continue monitoring the health of the population, and only time will illuminate the full effects. Until we know more, we’re left wondering: if dispersants harm wildlife, how useful are they?No Comments