On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana exploded, causing an oil gusher which spewed over 205 million gallons of oil and 225,000 tons of methane into the Gulf of Mexico. In the ensuing months, a lot of time and money has been invested in selling the idea that the Gulf has been healed, and on the road to recovering its former glory. We don’t have to buy that particular product. We can instead take the lessons of folks like the Center for Biological Diversity, which used available public data to chronicle the toll on marine wildlife in the Gulf:
Dead turtles, marine mammals, birds and fish are still washing up on beaches. Dolphins are miscarrying, and pelicans are attempting to nest on beaches polluted with tar balls and subsurface oil. The impacts of previous oil disasters show that wildlife in the Gulf will continue to be affected by this spill for decades. Lingering pollution from a 1969 spill in Massachusetts, for example, is still affecting fiddler crabs. Likewise, oysters and mangroves in Mexico are still affected by pollution from the 1979 Ixtoc spill in the Gulf, and oil remains on Alaskan beaches from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill with continuing impacts on birds and fish.
In order to comprehensively assess the likely impacts of the Gulf oil spill to date, the Center for Biological Diversity has combed government figures, news reports and scientific articles. To provide a more accurate estimate of the death toll, we used multiplication factors identified by leading scientists that estimate how many more animals are killed than are actually observed or collected.
In total, we found that the oil spill has likely harmed or killed approximately 82,000 birds of 102 species, approximately 6,165 sea turtles, and up to 25,900 marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, melon-headed whales and sperm whales. The spill also harmed an unknown number of fish — including bluefin tuna and substantial habitat for our nation’s smallest seahorse — and an unknown but likely catastrophic number of crabs, oysters, corals and other sea life. The spill also oiled more than a thousand miles of shoreline, including beaches and marshes, which took a substantial toll on the animals and plants found at the shoreline, including seagrass, beach mice, shorebirds and others.
Those who live in the region and know the effects of the spill understand that while not meeting the worst forecasts, the impact on the fragile Gulf ecosystem is deep, and bound to be felt for years.
“There are these cascading effects,” D’Elia said. “It could be accumulation of toxins in the food chain, or changes in the food web. Some species might dominate.”
Meanwhile, accumulated oil is believed to lie on the bottom of the Gulf, and it still shows up as a thick, gooey black crust along miles of Louisiana’s marshy shoreline. Scientists have begun to notice that the land in many places is eroding.
For example, on Cat Island, a patch of land where pelicans and reddish egrets nest among the black mangroves, Associated Press photographs taken a year ago and compared to those taken recently show visible loss of land and a lack of vegetation.
“Last year, those mangroves were healthy, dark green. This year they’re not,” said Todd Baker, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Land is eroding on sites where the oil has killed vegetation.
The public spotlight has gone away, and will only dissipate further in the coming years. But there’s still a lot of oil to clean, and a Gulf Coast region to restore. A year later, the plans for that restoration have not been written. The fines, which under the Clean Water Act could reach as high as $21.1 billion, have not yet been collected. The construction has not commenced. The funding structure for restoration has not been decided.
The biggest fear is that inertia will set in, and the scars of the BP oil disaster will remain etched into the shoreline of the Gulf.