Just How Badly Have We Screwed Up the Gulf Ecosystem?
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As media crews pack up and head for home, the wild animals that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico still have a long battle ahead of them. According to recent adjustments of official estimates, this spill has become the second largest in history. With around 75 percent of the total oil spilled now dispersed throughout the environment, it may take a while to understand the full extent of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It's time to start figuring out how badly we messed up the Gulf ecosystem, if it will recover, and what we can do to help.
How bad is it?
A government panel of scientists called the Flow Rate Technical Group has estimated that 4.9 million barrels or 205.8 million gallons of Southern Louisiana crude have been released into the Gulf of Mexico throughout the 87 days it flowed. According to a newly released government report, 25 percent of the oil has been removed from the gulf via direct recovery from the well head, burning and skimming. This still leaves 154.35 million gallons of the oil out in the environment in one form or another. That's 234 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of oil freewheeling in the Gulf ecosystem.
With many major news outlets reporting that the oil slick is largely gone from the Gulf, a whole new set of problems arises: 154.35 million gallons of oil has not disappeared. It has been dispersed throughout the water column and into the air. Nearly two million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants were dumped into the marine environment along with the oil. These chemicals break up the oil and force it to disperse (hence the name) into the subsurface waters. This takes a two-dimensional problem that we know how to deal with and turns it into a three-dimensional problem we do not have the ability to solve.
The fact that the oil spewed up from a deposit of unknown volume along with the use of dispersants to push the oil below the surface has made it all the more difficult to get an accurate estimate of the spill. This serves BP well, as it is financially liable for every gallon it can't recover.
The haves and have-nots
What can we deduce from all these numbers? Things are bad, really bad and that may spell disaster for wildlife.
Sea turtles and birds seem to have garnered comprehensive support throughout this disaster. The decision made by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NOAA and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission to excavate a large number of turtle nests along Florida shores was a bold conservation maneuver that may have been those turtles' only chance at survival. Of the five species of sea turtles present in the Gulf of Mexico, two species are threatened and three are endangered.
Birds have received a large amount of media attention, although conservation efforts in their favor were not as aggressive. Brown pelicans, Louisiana's state bird, were removed from the endangered species list only last year and are still considered threatened. The state has spent millions of dollars and over 40 years working on the recovery of its brown pelican population. Although the largest pelican rookery islands in the southeast are off the coast of Louisiana there was no motion to remove eggs and hatchlings from rookeries despite the eminent arrival of devastating amounts of oil. Capture and rehabilitation protocols have been questioned by many experienced biologists but Fish and Wildlife and Louisiana State Wildlife and Fisheries have stuck to their guns and maintained their hands-off response strategies.