How Much Oil is Leaking?
Depending on the sources available to check, the oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico at anywhere from 504,000 gallons per day to 4,200,000 gallons per day. Oil has been gushing out of a broken pipe on the sea floor since April 30, 2010. That means that as of June 3rd, between 21,420,000 and 184,355,000,000 gallons of oil have already contaminated the Gulf waters – and that oil is rapidly spreading. Less than 2% of that oil is making it to the surface, making techniques that use absorbent material to sweep the ocean surface a worthwhile effort but of small consequence for most of the ocean life.
As oil continues to spill into the Gulf, the beginnings of the fallout are already being seen. As it reaches land, the oil is contaminating the breeding grounds of many fragile coastal creatures. Over 400 species are estimated to be impacted by the spill.
There are five species of sea turtle in the Gulf Coast and all are threatened. Kemp Ridley sea turtle is perhaps the most threatened by the oil slick because it nests only in the western Gulf of Mexico and is currently at peak nesting. Sea turtles are not only vulnerable to eating contaminated fish, but are also at risk of ingesting and inhaling the oil when coming up to the surface for air.
Sea birds are strongly affected by oil spills. When oil sticks to birds' feathers, it allows water to penetrate through to their bodies, with the result that they can die from hypothermia or drowning. The oil also makes it impossible for them to fly and find food. It also causes internal poisoning when it is ingested from cleaning their feathers or eating contaminated fish.
The rehabilitation of oiled sea birds is a long and difficult process, for both the rescuers and the birds. Successful removal and rehabilitation can take months. Before the birds can be released back into the wild, they need to have replaced the natural oils on their feathers (for warmth and for flight), so that they will be able to float satisfactorily and have enough strength to fly.
Brown pelicans – This state bird of Louisiana nests on barrier islands and feeds near shore. Their breeding season just began and many pairs are already incubating eggs. Removed from the U.S. Endangered Species Act list only last year, brown pelicans remain vulnerable, and their relatively low reproductive rate means that any disruption to their breeding cycle could have serious effects on the population. Because brown pelicans dive into the water for food, they are threatened by eating contaminated fish (and feeding them to their young) as well as by the danger of getting their feathers covered in oil, which could cause hypothermia or drowning.
Heron - Many species of heron breed in the region affected by the oil spill, including Louisiana herons, black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons, green herons, and little blue herons. They nest in large colonies called rookeries and many of them feed in the marshes along the coast that are all threatened from the oil.
Egrets - As with herons, there are many species of egrets that feed and nest in the coastal areas now being contaminated by the mass amounts of toxic oil. These species include snowy, reddish, and great egrets.
Terns- Terns nest along Gulf Coast beaches as part of their migratory journey and feed on fish and other marine life making them extremely vulnerable to oil on the surface or washing ashore.
Other birds affected include the piping plovers, American oystercatchers, and reddish egrets (Breton Sound Island).
Dolphins - 3,000 to 5,000 dolphins live around the Mississippi waters, and 75,000 call the Gulf of Mexico home. Because dolphins have to rise to the surface frequently to breathe, the oil spill is especially dangerous for them. Their extra sensitive skin can suffer burns and irritation from the oil, their eyes can develop ulcers, conjunctivitis, and even blindness as a result, and they risk inhaling the oil and its vapors, which could severely damage their lungs and airways. Furthermore, if a dolphin ingests the oil they can get ulcers or even suffer internal bleeding. Oil contaminating their food supply will only exacerbate the problem down the road, as new generations may become poisoned from their mothers' milk.
Sperm Whales - 1,400 to 1,660 sperm whales, an endangered species, currently live in the Gulf of Mexico. Sperm whales are at risk for many of the same reasons dolphins are, including the inhalation of oil and even the threat of passing out and drowning as a result of the toxic fumes. Because sperm whales take such a long time to reach sexual maturity, if as few as three are killed from the oil spill it could be devastating to their population.
Bryde Whales – Bryde’s whales are filter feeders having baleen plates instead of teeth. Their feeding methods include skimming the surface for plankton, krill, and schooling fish. Oil and tarballs can clog the plates used to feed, decreasing their ability to eat.
Manatees – Manatees migrate from Florida to Louisiana waters every summer. Scientists are worried that the endangered creatures will be swimming into dangerous toxic waters, and there is little research to tell us the likelihood that they will be able to survive. Additionally, the spreading oil spill is threatening to move into sensitive areas such as wildlife refuges and national and state parks where many endangered species live, including manatees.
Fish and Shellfish
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna - Already facing extinction from overfishing, the Atlantic bluefin tuna were struck with another disastrous blow when oil began spilling into the Gulf, an area they migrate to in March, staying until June. May and April are peek spawning months for them and the Gulf is the only documented spawning ground for the Western bluefin. Unfortunately, the chemical dispersants being used on the spill only make things worse for the bluefin, as they sink the oil below the surface and into the area where delicate bluefin eggs and larvae are floating.
Blue Crab - Like many other species, the blue crab is currently in spawning season offshore. As with bluefin tuna, the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil spill are especially threatening to the blue crab population. Both the oil and chemical dispersants are toxic to marine life.
Oil spills affect all the animals in the oceans – plankton, larval fish, and bottom-dwelling organisms, seaweed, clams, oysters, and muscles. It then affects all animals up the food chain... so death may not be immediate but will almost certainly occur for many years after the spill.