Dying dolphins, bluefin tuna embryos with heart defects and hundreds of dead sea turtles washing ashore are proof the BP oil spill is still hurting and killing wildlife four years after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Wildlife Federation claims in a new report.
The report, “Four Years into the Gulf Oil Disaster: Still Waiting for Restoration,” includes a compilation of research so far about impacts of the oil disaster on 14 species around the Gulf of Mexico.
“Determining what the impacts are is really very difficult,” said Doug Inkley, National Wildlife Federation senior scientist.
In addition, much of the research being done on the oil’s impacts to wildlife and ecosystems remains confidential as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and pending legal actions.
Still, some research released over the past several years shows the spill has had developmental effects on species such as killifish and, most recently, in the embryonic development of bluefin tuna.
“Now, four years into the Gulf oil disaster, wildlife is still feeling the impact,” Inkley said. “The oil is not gone and the impacts to wildlife are ongoing.”
It’s likely, he added, the impact will be seen for years to come. He noted that some species have yet to recover even after 25 years since the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
BP representatives dispute many of the report’s findings, saying the group “cherry picks” information and reports to support the organization’s agenda.
One example, Jason Ryan, BP America Inc. press officer, wrote in an emailed response to the report, is how the report “misrepresents the U.S. government’s investigation into dolphin deaths.”
He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s own website states that inquiry is ongoing and that a number of potential causes are being investigated for the dolphin deaths.
Ryan added, “No definitive cause has yet been identified for the increase in strandings in the northern Gulf that began months before the accident.”
He said the National Wildlife Federation’s report also ignores other scientific reports that show no impact from the spill, such as a study by Auburn University showing no evidence of spill impact on young red snapper populations off Alabama.
The National Wildlife Federation report examined the observed effects to bottlenose dolphins, bluefin tuna, blue crab, brown pelican, common loon, coral, eastern oyster, foraminifera, Gulf killifish, red snapper, seaside sparrow, sea turtle, sperm whale and white pelican.
On the top of the food chain, dolphins continue to show higher than normal mortality. In 2013, they were still stranding at three times the average annual rate before the spill, according to the report.
NOAA started investigating the higher than normal mortality levels in February 2010, before the oil spill occurred.
However, in a study released last year that examined dolphins in Barataria Bay, researchers found that almost half of the animals they examined were in bad health.
Researchers found that dolphins examined in 2011 were five times more likely than counterparts in unoiled areas to have moderate to severe lung disease, many of the dolphins in the oiled area were underweight and had low levels of hormones that help control response to stress.
After testing the dolphins for contamination from sources other than the oil spill, they didn’t find any other potential cause for the health problems.
NOAA released a study in March that found bluefin tuna embryo exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil collected at the time of the spill can cause heart deformities leading to immediate death or to shorter life spans if the fish survive.
Ryan, the BP spokesman, disputed that enough information was included in the NOAA study to conclude that exposure to oil in the Gulf of Mexico would have the same impact found in laboratory testing.
An iconic image of wildlife impact from the Deepwater Horizon disaster was that of oiled brown pelicans, some of which were captured and taken to special de-oiling facilities.
Although there were a number of success stories of brown pelicans being released to the wild, there were many more birds that died and even more that were never found.
According to the National Wildlife Federation report, 826 brown pelicans were collected in the oil spill area as of May 2011, many of which were found after they were dead.
“Nonetheless, the size of brown pelican populations, even in heavily-oiled areas, may not have been dramatically affected,” according to the report.
Although federal agencies are also looking into possible impacts, the information about that is not publicly available yet, according to the report.
Sea turtle strandings also remain above average and about 500 turtle carcasses a year were found along the Gulf Coast between 2011 and 2013.
However, the report cautioned, it’s hard to tell how far above normal those numbers are since many of the turtles were found in remote areas where they wouldn’t have been reported at all before the spill. NOAA scientists estimated that fewer than 100 of the dead sea turtles would have been found per year before the spill.
“Despite what the oil company would have us believe, the impacts are ongoing,” said Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior policy specialist for Gulf and coastal restoration.
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