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Pelicans, Otters, Manatees Could be Hurt by Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Deepwater Horizon oil spill seen from space over LA
Imagery courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

Endangered sea turtles, herons, white and brown pelicans, dolphins, whales, manatees, tuna and assorted sea birds  could all be hurt by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that is now 16 miles off the tip of Louisiana and alarming wildlife officials all the way to Florida.

The Coast Guard is burning the oil, hoping that will keep it from making landfall and destroying wetlands. I wonder if, ironically, the giant dead zone in the gulf may mean that the area the oil spill hits may be devoid of life anyway. The next step for wildlife rescuers would be to herd animals out of the area by hazing them.
The International Bird Rescue Research Center in Texas says they’ve been put on alert for the decapitated oil well, which is gushing about 1,000 barrels (42,000 US gallons) of crude daily and already can be seen from space, with a circumference of 600 miles.

If the spill stays offshore then the impact will likely be minimal to birds. Coastal birds that are highly at risk if the spill hits shore are brown and white pelicans, terns, gulls, shorebirds, skimmers and herons. Nesting and feeding areas for birds and sea turtles such as marshes and beaches could be impacted.

Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley turtles are in the area, Live Science says. Birds are vulnerable if they ingest the oil or get coated in it. The oil removes their waterproofing, then they die of cold. In a report on dealing with oil spills, the EPA says mammals that groom themselves with their mouths, like otters, end up eating oil and getting it in their eyes. Sea otters don’t live there; river otters do. No one really knows how to help marine mammals stuck in oil, they say.

Procedures for capturing, treating, and releasing animals may hurt them more than the oil does. For example, manatees are particularly susceptible to secondary fungal and bacterial infections following capture or transportation. 

Whales, dolphins, seals and manatees end up breathing hydrocarbon vapors that hurt their lungs, getting it in their eyes and nursing young eat it. Manatees summer as far west as Texas (but that’s rare); a few regularly visit Mobile, AL. The biggest danger to manatees, which spend the summer as far west as Texas, may be getting hit by boats responding to the disaster.

So far the Tampa Tribune reports that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hasn’t found any oiled birds, but they are doing necropsies (animal autopsies) on 15 migratory birds found dead Tuesday in the Pass-a-Grille area of St. Pete Beach.

In Alabama, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab is sending boats out to test the waters and “trying to re-establish oiled bird emergency response plans that have not been exercised for many years.” They fear it could be the worst Gulf oil spill ever. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry goes even further: “If we don’t secure this well, this could be one of the most significant oil spills in U.S. history.”

Where the oil spill is on 4/28

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