BP’s efforts to stop the deepwater leak with remote-controlled submarines so far have failed. Multiple other efforts to control the spill are underway—including construction of a containment system, controlled burns of the oil, and the drilling of relief wells—but those efforts could take weeks or months. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is among a group of Cabinet members touring the site today, has declared the Gulf of Mexico oil slick “a spill of national significance,” and the military may be called in to aid in the efforts to combat it.
Oil Hits the Delta
On Thursday night, the oil made its first landfall: Louisiana's “bird’s foot” delta and barrier marshes. Over the weekend, the oil is expected to reach Mississippi and Alabama and Officials of the joint federal-industry response team said that more than 217,000 feet (66,142 meters) of boom have been deployed to try to protect ecologically sensitive areas, and that loud cannons have been fired in an effort to haze the birds from the water’s edge.
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Michael Ziccardi, a biologist and director of the California-based Oiled Wildlife Care Network, whose group helped in the rescue of brown pelican chicks during the 2005 Breton Sound spill, says it is on standby, ready to deploy to the Gulf Coast.
Birds like the pelican are vulnerable, he said, because they normally use their feathers as a wet suit. When the oil covers them, it creates open holes in that barrier of feathers and allows water to get against their skin. Because birds have normal body temperatures between 39.4° and 41.1°C (103° and 106°F), heat loss in the water can be fatal.
“They can't maintain that temperature and have to come ashore to stay warm, but when they're ashore, they can't eat,” he said. “It just creates a vicious cycle."
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Otters and Sea Turtles in Danger
Ziccardi said many other animals are at risk as well, including heavily furred animals such as otters and nutria. Dolphin and whales can get skin irritations, and sea turtles are susceptible to oil ingestion because they often come to the surface to feed. It is an especially vulnerable time for the sea turtles because they are entering their spring nesting season.
It’s also a dangerous time of year for oil to hit the state’s fisheries, which produce more than a third of the nation’s seafood, including blue crab, shrimp, and fish, according to the Louisiana Seafood & Promotion Board.
State fisheries managers said local fisheries are especially vulnerable because speckled trout (spotted sea trout) have started spawning, oysters have started reproducing larvae, and white and brown shrimp are in transit to the estuaries.
Harry Blanchet, Finfish Program Manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said that while mature fish can often swim away from oily waters, fish in the early stages of life are at great risk. Larvae and post-larvae are likely to consume oil directly or through the plankton and other food that they eat.
"Fish are mobile. If there is something in that oil they can avoid, they'll do that, but some of the early life stages just aren't capable of that kind of movement," said Blanchet.
In all, more than 400 species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals in the estuaries along Louisiana's coast and surrounding waters could be affected by the oil, says Karen Foote, biologist administrator of marine fisheries for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Areas that have already been identified for impact include the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area, the Chandeleur Islands, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
But the risk doesn’t stop at the shoreline. Foote says hundreds of inlets, bays, and bayous could carry the oil farther inland. With tides of more than a foot and little elevation on the coast, the oil could inundate the deep interior of the wetlands.
"The oil follows the water. If the currents and tides bring it in, it's just going to go wherever the water goes, and it [could travel for] miles," said Foote.
Biologists say it could be years before they know the full ecological impact of the oil