*[Enwl] Gulf Oil Spill Feared to Have Long-term Impact on Food Chain

ENWL.Bellona enwl.bellona на gmail.com
Пт Июн 4 15:39:36 MSD 2010

Fears Grow over Oil Spill's Long-Term Effects on Food Chain

By Matthew Cardinale*

Illustration Omitted:
  Less toxic absorbent materials like human hair and nylon 
stockings are being collected for use in soaking up the oil. / 
Credit:Matthew Cardinale/IPS

ATLANTA, Georgia, May 31, 2010 (IPS/IFEJ) - As oil continues gushing 
from the ocean floor into the Gulf of Mexico, with no sign of 
stopping until a new well is finished this August, scientists, 
environmentalists and local residents are beginning to reckon with 
the reality of a massive annihilation of sea creatures and wildlife.

Dead animals are already washing up on shores. Birds have been found 
dying in pools of oil and dispersant, which have taken over their 
marshland habitats.

Several species in the Gulf of Mexico are already endangered, 
including the Kemp's Ridley and Leatherback sea turtles, the Sperm 
Whale, and birds such as the Piping Plover and the Gulf Sturgeon, 
according to the Arizona-based Centre for Biological Diversity (CBD).

As a result of the disaster, CBD has already petitioned the U.S. 
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to add the Bluefin Tuna to the 
endangered species list.

Assistant Professor Michael Blum of Tulane University's Department of 
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology warns that some species may be at 
risk of extinction.

"There are... hundreds of shorebirds and marine mammals that are 
acutely sensitive to oil. You could potentially lose whole species, 
have extinction events. Brown pelicans were just taken off the 
endangered species list. On this threshold, a big dieback and 
mortality event, they would be pushed back into a situation where 
they could be endangered," Blum said in an interview.

"A lot of the species of most concern - sea turtles and dolphins - 
migrate, use our breeding grounds or they're a very important feeding 
ground," he explained.

While there are no dolphin species whose populations exclusively 
migrate through the Gulf, Blum said those dolphins not impacted by 
the Gulf would be in such low numbers that they may not be able to 
reproduce at an adequate rate to avoid extinction.

The EPA admits the impact of the oil spill - and the unprecedented 
use of toxic dispersants to break up the oil - on wildlife is 
unknown. "We're still deeply concerned about the things we don't 
know. The long-term effect on aquatic life is unknown," EPA Secretary 
Lisa Jackson said in a conference call with reporters this week.

The agency says will require rigorous autopsies and necropsies to 
determine whether the animals are in fact dying because of the oil 
and no other reason. It says soil and air sampling do not show 
dangerous levels of contaminants so far.

"They're saying it's really not clear - it's a safe thing to say. As 
a scientist, one doesn't want to overreach and reach erroneous 
conclusions," Blum said. However, he added, "from a real world 
perspective, going down, seeing what's happening and understanding 
the ecology of the system, we're facing immediate effects of 

"Certainly when oil washes up against the shoreline you have 
immediate toxic effects on almost anything. If you're a fish, you get 
oil on your gills and can't breathe. If you're a crab, same story. If 
you're a plant, you get suffocated, it reduces photosynthesis," he 

Jackson, who has toured the Gulf Coast twice since the disaster 
began, told reporters, "It's clear oil is piling up in marshes. It's 
quite a bit." She referred to the oil slick that has been reaching 
some shores and marshlands as "the goop".

"We're sampling the goop. There's lots of speculation of what could 
be in this goop, we'll look for dispersant chemicals as well as what 
else might be in there," Jackson said. "BP has thrust upon us one of 
the greatest environmental challenges of our time."

The Gulf marshlands are a breeding ground for many animals. Young 
shrimp, for example, mature in the marshlands, and then migrate to 
the ocean where they become food for fish. In three or four years, if 
there are no adult shrimp to migrate out, the entire food chain could 
be affected.

"Really, there are cumulative effects over time. There's immediate 
shock to system, immediate toxicity and immediate mortality - birds, 
dolphins, marine mammals oiled. The mortality is relatively small in 
comparison to the potential effect that may accumulate over time. 
Things are not as bad now as they likely will become," Blum said.

Watchdog groups complain that the drilling plans submitted by oil 
companies like BP to the U.S. government reveal a cavalier attitude 
towards the risk posed to animals in the Gulf.

"One of the exploration plans I read said, if there is a spill, the 
wildlife can probably just navigate around it. So the burden is 
really on the wildlife," said Miyoko Sakashita, CBD Oceans Director.

"Some animals have more keen sense and have stayed away. But there 
have been studies of sea turtles that go right through it," Sakashita 
said in an interview. "Even if they can avoid the spill while it's a 
plume in the water, that removes it from the habitat."

The extent of the impact on Gulf Coast animals will depend on many 
factors, scientists say. It now looks like the spill will continue 
until August, although it is not clear whether the spill will 
continue at its current rate, or spew faster.

It will also depend on whether BP or the U.S. government can keep the 
oil away from the coast, using techniques like "booming" - the 
placing of barriers in the water - or possibly using tankers to suck 
up the oily water, separate out the oil, and return the clean water 
into the ocean.

Meanwhile, concerned citizens across the U.S. are taking matters into 
their own hands by sending absorbent materials like human hair and 
nylon stockings for use in soaking up the oil. Justin Fredericksen, a 
hair stylist at Mint Salon in Atlanta, got tired of feeling depressed 
about the disaster and decided to do something: last weekend, he 
organised local hairdressers to offer free cuts for customers who 
donate their hair to the cause.

Despite the relief efforts, if a hurricane were to hit the Gulf this 
storm season - which is predicted to be very active - it would bring 
much of the oil onto the shore.

Blum says it's easier to separate oil from water than it is to 
separate oil from the marshlands, which he described as a "sponge". 
Locals worry a hurricane this season could be the nail in the coffin 
for marshlands already teetering on the brink of destruction.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by IPS, 
CGIAR/Biodiversity International, IFEJ and UNEP/CBD, members of 
Communicators for Sustainable Development 


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