Driven deep into Gulf Coast waterways by wind and seasonally high tides, the spreading oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon accident could cause serious ecological and wildlife-health consequences long after signs of surface damage have been erased.
Independent studies of several major oil spills, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident, show that oil often reaches farther into tidal estuaries than previously thought and can soak into shoreline sediment where it can continue to affect fish and wildlife for 10 or 20 years.
In the aftermath of offshore oil spills in Alaska, Massachusetts and Spain, researchers discovered long-term effects on shellfish, crabs, seabirds, whales and sea otters years after the accidents. The problems ranged from altered blood chemistry and higher levels of stress hormones to erratic behavior, contaminated eggs and long-term population declines.
Since the Exxon Valdez spill—one of the most intensively studied marine oil incidents in history, Dr. Esler has tracked the long-term effects of the spill among wildlife in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Last month, he reported genetic evidence showing that the harlequin ducks there are still exposed to oil. He cautioned that exposure didn’t by itself prove any adverse effect. “We can safely say that oil is not good for you, but how bad it is at the levels they are encountering, we can’t say,” he said.
Other follow-up studies have shown that, a decade after the spill, fish in the original spill zone still were being exposed to hydrocarbons, while 17 seabird species had yet to recover.
The National Marine Fisheries Service still lists seven species of oysters, clams, ducks and killer whales as recovering from the oil spill. Two species of herring and salmon have shown no signs of recovery even after 20 years.
As long as the underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico continues to spew oil, currently at a rate of about 5,000 barrels a day, oil will wash into estuaries on every tidal cycle, building up successive layers of silt and oil along the shoreline. The salt marshes and beaches are home to thousands of nesting waterfowl and a rest stop for millions of migrating birds.
Emergency workers continued Friday to set up protective barriers around the most vulnerable coastal regions, but the area’s salt marshes and other wildlife refuges are difficult to sequester. And researchers said mangrove swamps, seagrass shallows and marshes are so fragile that any effort to clean them up would do additional damage.
To some extent, the Gulf of Mexico is naturally awash with oil seeping from seafloor sediment.
In the early 1990s, researchers discovered more than 600 areas where oil naturally leaks into the Gulf from undersea reservoirs. Based on satellite and radar surveys, the researchers estimated that this natural leakage amounted every year to twice the amount of the Exxon Valdez spill, which was about 260,000 barrels.
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