The massive oil spill currently being battled in the Gulf of Mexico will impact tens of thousands of marine animals and wildlife. The accident occurred in an area that is already environmentally fragile and at a time when many species are taking care of their young.
But even after the leak is repaired and most of us move on to our normal daily lives, the animals in the region will be feeling the long term effects of the devastation. For some, it may spell the end of their species.
In 1989 a similar oil spill from the Exxon Valdez along Alaska’s Prince William Sound killed more than 250,000 animals that included: seabirds, sea otters, harbor seals, bald eagles and killer whales. Twenty-one years later the affected area is still trying to recover from the disaster.
Before the Exxon Valdez spill, the region thrived with herring and salmon. Those fish were a main food source for a pod of orca whales that populated the area. After the clean-up, the herring never returned to the Prince William Sound and only a limited number of salmon have popped up over the years. Today the pod of whales is considered “threatened.”
Biologists in the Gulf are concerned that a similar ripple effect will hit their area, as well.
It is too soon to know just how much damage the oil spill will bring to wildlife, but the Gulf coast is already comprised of fragile wetlands and marshes that have been worn down by humans and nature. These areas are home to many endangered species.
Currently there are about 2,000 endangered seabirds known as “least terns” who have just laid their eggs on the Gulfport beaches. Alison Sharpe, director of Wildlife Care and Rescue Center, Inc. told CBS News, “The spill has the great potential of wiping out the entire population of least terns along our coast area.”
And it is estimated that up to 5,000 bottlenose dolphins are in the surrounding waters, calving their offspring. Scientists are concerned that the playful dolphins will try to explore the oil spill area or eat fish that have been exposed to the oil. Both could cause long term harm to the dolphins and their young.
Also along the Gulf beaches in Texas and Mexico the entire population of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle are nested with their young for the next several months. If the oil moves in their direction, the whole species could be gone.
A Louisiana charter boat captain named Bob summed it up by saying,”My kids will be talking about the effect of this when they’re my age.”
Dr. Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi worries about the future of all marine life in the Gulf. “Even if the oil stays mostly offshore, the consequences could be dire for sea turtles, dolphins and other deepwater marine life, and microscopic plankton and tiny creatures that are a staple of larger animals’ diets,” said Solangi.
The Gulf of Mexico is an incredible diverse ecosystem that is the natural habitat to fives types of threatened sea turtles and seven endangered or threatened groups of whales.
Experts estimate that more than 400 species will be impacted by the spill. Biologists, marine specialists and other wildlife authorities are utilizing their expertise to create a game plan to aid animals in the aftermath of the spill.
But no one really knows how this will end or what the long term effects will be on the wildlife that calls this region home. One expert called the disaster “the ultimate Pandora’s box.”
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