Wildlife in Peril as Slick Nears Gulf Coast
April 30, 2010 § Leave a comment
The Wall Street Journal
By Robert Lee Hotz and Angel Gonzalez
BELLE CHASE, La.—As a giant oil slick neared landfall late Thursday, field crews raced to barricade the Gulf coast’s fragile wetlands and beaches, where thousands of wildfowl are nesting at the height of their breeding season and millions of migrating birds pause in their annual spring journey north.
The oil “is already in state waters” and will reach the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area, near the southernmost tip of the state, “later tonight,” Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser said Thursday, after a meeting with council members and a congressman to discuss the emergency.
Mr. Nungesser added that the barriers currently in place would do a good job of protecting the environmentally sensitive islands, but they wouldn’t “hold back the oil” and prevent it from reaching inland through the multitude of channels that constitute the Mississippi Delta. The resulting damage “is not going to be cleaned up in the short term,” he said.
Spewing forth at about 5,000 barrels a day from an underwater well, the vast oil slick is shaping up as an environmental disaster for wildlife throughout the Gulf region, from migrating hummingbirds and nesting brown pelicans to the bottle-nosed dolphins, endangered sea turtles and shrimp that take shelter in the Gulf’s seagrass shallows, private conservationists and university marine biologists said.
“It is sad to see an already fragile habitat face a crisis like this one,” said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the national Audubon Society. “The oil will make it hard for them to swim or fly and wreaks havoc with their food supply.”
Wildlife experts said Thursday the spill already was washing a toxic skim of chemicals across the home waters of endangered marine life and valuable fisheries, including one of only two breeding grounds world-wide for Atlantic bluefin tuna, which were spawning this time of year. Usually, the tuna breed in areas south and west of the spill, but shifting currents may move the eggs into the slick, said Chris Mann, a senior officer in the marine program of the Pew Environment Group.
The newly hatched larvae of most fish species in the area are especially vulnerable to the oil, which can leach volatile chemicals into the water in which they swim. “That could have a serious impact on fish populations,” said marine biologist Jackie Savitz at Oceana, an ocean conservation group opposed to offshore drilling. “This stuff is toxic to pretty much everything, in the right dose.”
Larger marine mammals and deepwater fish, though, are likely to be able to swim to safety. “All the bigger things—the sperm whales and marine mammals—can get out of the way of the spill,” said oceanographer John Wormuth at Texas A&M University.
Wildlife experts and oceanographers said they worried about the consequences of efforts to contain the oil spill. The chemical dispersants used to speed the rate at which the oil breaks up in seawater are toxic.
“Often the damage from the dispersants themselves can be as great as the oil,” Dr. Wormuth said.
Conservationists worry that over the long run the oil will seep into the sediment along the shoreline and remain there for years, further damaging wildlife habitats already hit by a succession of severe storms, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr. Mann said oil continued to seep out of the sediment in Prince William Sound more than 20 years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
“The burrowing animals, they’re still in contact with it,” he said.
An ExxonMobil Corp. spokesman said experts with the company are helping in the cleanup effort in the Gulf.
—Jeffrey Ball contributed to this article.