The majority of U.S. offshore oil production takes place in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon accident is not the gas and oil industry’s first major environmental assault on the Gulf, and, with 7,000 active leases, it is not likely to be its last. Since 1947, more than 50,000 oil wells have been drilled here. For decades the industry has channelized and destroyed Louisiana’s wetlands, reducing these critical ecosystems in size and lowering their resiliency and ability to withstand the current onslaught.
The Gulf of Mexico provides important nesting and foraging habitat for loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley turtles; leatherbacks forage in these waters, too.Although the spill poses a threat to all sea turtles, loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys in the Eastern Gulf are especially at risk. Loggerheads feeding in the Gulf nest on both coasts of Florida; these nesting populations have declined dramatically since 1998. Thanks to concerted conservation efforts that began in 1969, Kemp’s ridley populations are increasing on nesting beaches in the Western Gulf, but the species is highly vulnerable to this oil spill because the majority of ridleys spend their entire lives in the Gulf of Mexico. Juveniles and adults feed on crabs in the rich coastal waters of the northern Gulf where oil is now washing ashore in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Florida Panhandle. Particularly important areas include Caillou Bay and Calcasieu Pass, LA; Big Gulley, AL; and the Cedar Keys and Ten Thousand Islands, FL.
In 2009 fewer than 1,200 female loggerheads nested in the Gulf from Florida to Texas, with the vast majority of nesting in Florida. A handful of green turtles nest on the west coast of Florida each year too. Important turtle nesting areas in the western Gulf include the Kemp’s ridley’s main nesting beach of Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where annual nesting has increased from 300-400 females in 1986 to nearly 10,000 in 2009, and on Padre Island, Texas where between 100-200 Kemp’s ridleys nest. The Yucatan is also a very important area for hundreds of nesting hawksbills, loggerheads and green turtles. As we go to press in July, the spill remains largely restricted to the eastern Gulf, but tar balls have been found recently in Texas. As the summer progresses, currents, storms and hurricanes may carry oil throughout the Gulf and possibly up the east coast of Florida.
When sea turtles surface to breathe, they cannot differentiate between clean water and water covered with oil. Turtles coming in contact with even small amounts of oil face immune suppression, decreased reproductive fitness, and shortened lives. BP has kept images of dead and dying wildlife from the public, including sea turtles, as bodies result in greater fines. Thus far, most of the turtles found in oil have been dead, but in June, reports of BP’s horrific practice of burning corralled oil before removing live turtles in the containment area made the national news. This practice has been stopped until effective protocols are adopted to prevent this from happening again. We are now hearing about nesting females being exposed to hydrocarbons, oiled beaches, and possibly entangling booms left to absorb the oil. It is unlikely embryos can survive on heavily oiled beaches, but hatchlings produced on clean beaches and heading for the safety of weedlines will not be safe if they encounter oil slicks or floating oil.We have had a glimpse into the marine world through the eyes of Associated Press staffer Rich Matthews who dove into the Gulf 40 miles from shore in early June, “Dropping beneath the surface the only thing I see is oil. To the left, right, up and down — it sits on top of the water in giant pools, and hangs suspended 15 feet beneath the surface in softball-sized blobs. There is nothing alive under the slick, although I see a dead jellyfish and a handful of small bait fish.” Although little is known about the adverse environmental effects of the toxins in the dispersants used to break up oil and make it more soluble in water, a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded the dispersants are not as toxic as oil.
Volunteers working to save sea turtles and other wildlife apply mayonnaise or other food oils to remove crude oil on the body, around the eyes and from the mouth and use dishwashing detergent and lots of warm water to clean the skin and shell. For turtles with severe exposure, veterinarians administer fluids and charcoal-containing compounds to prevent oil from being absorbed internally and causing organ damage. Once sea turtles and other animals are ready for return to the wild, however, rehabilitators face the question of where to release them. One biologist tracking wildlife in the Gulf told STC staff that for hundreds of square miles, there’s simply no clean place for them to go.
According to the latest estimates, more than one million gallons of oil are spilling into the Gulf each day (in 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled a total of 11 million gallons). If it were not for the completion of a Gulf-wide survey for the Census of Marine Life in 2009, we would not have critical baseline data for those who will attempt to estimate the extent of animal and plant losses related to the spill. But biologists working in the field are haunted by the lessons of the Exxon Valdez because the oil industry has not made progress in its response to catastrophic spills in environmentally sensitive areas. More than 20 years after that spill, the Prince William Sound has not fully recovered. Oil is visible or is readily exposed with a little digging; many wildlife populations remain small or are increasing slowly; fish have been deformed; and one endemic fish species is extinct. The culture of affected coastal communities has been largely disrupted, and tragically, many involved in the clean-up have developed significant long-term, and sometimes fatal, health problems.
While the attention of Americans and the world is focused on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, each year disastrous deepwater spills and blowouts occur in other places, such as along the West coast of Africa, with barely a mention. As demand for oil increases and available supplies of more accessible oil shrink, deepwater drilling will increase around the world. For the sake of the oceans, and all of us, the oil and gas companies must develop technology and protocols that address the worst case scenario. Ultimately, Americans need the political will to pass sweeping energy legislation and fully embrace renewable energy.