Birds, Sharks, Whales, Sea Turtles, and Other Wildlife Threatened By Oil Slick Nearing Coast

Birds, Sharks, Whales, Sea Turtles, and Other Wildlife Threatened By Oil Slick Nearing Coast

Alisa Opar
Published: 04/29/2010

Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy USFWS

[UPDATED, 4/30/2010] The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico reportedly reached shore early Friday morning, and wildlife specialists are preparing for what the government is calling “a spill of national significance” that may reach the fragile Louisiana coast as early as Thursday night.

Some 5,000 barrels a day, or 200,000 gallons (more than five times more than earlier estimates) are pouring into the ocean from a broken pipe 5,000 feet below the surface following the Deepwater Horizon rig incident. So far, efforts to stem the flow have failed, and controlled burns haven’t eradicated the slick. Wildlife officials are preparing for what may be the worst oil spill in history (Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson are heading to the Gulf Coast on Friday.)

"The terrible loss of 11 workers may be just the beginning of this tragedy as the oil slick spreads toward sensitive coastal areas vital to birds and marine life and to all the communities that depend on them," said Melanie Driscoll, an Audubon bird conservation director, who is monitoring the situation from her base in Louisiana. "For birds, the timing could not be worse; they are breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where the oil could come ashore."

“As the encroachment of oil into coastal zones appears imminent, primary concerns include potential impacts to 20 coastal national wildlife refuges within the possible trajectory of the spill,” said Tom MacKenzie, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cleanup teams are putting in place booms to try and protect the areas most at risk, including Breton National Wildlife Refuge. “[Breton] Refuge staff have estimated more than 34,000 birds, including 2,000 pairs of pelicans, 5,000 pairs of royal terns, 5,000 pairs of caspian terns and 5,000 pairs of feeding, loafing and nesting gulls and other shore birds,” says MacKenzie.

Here’s a look at some of the birds and other wildlife experts are most concerned about:

Brown Pelican: Louisiana's state bird nests on barrier islands and feeds near shore. Their breeding season just began and many pairs are already incubating eggs. Removed from the Endangered Species list only last November, brown pelicans remain vulnerable to storms, habitat loss and other pressures. Their relatively low reproductive rate means any disruption to their breeding cycle could have serious effects on the population. [Audubon] Photo: Gary M. Stolz, FWS

Reddish Egret: Populations of these large, strictly coastal egrets have dwindled due to habitat loss and disturbance. As specialized residents of coastal environments, they have nowhere else to go if their feeding and nesting grounds are fouled by oil. [Audubon] Photo: James C. Leupold, FWS 

Roseate Spoonbill: Like many herons and egrets, the roseate spoonbill feeds in marshes and along the coast and nests in large colonies that will be vulnerable if oil comes ashore. [Audubon] Photo: NASA

Black Skimmer: Along with other beach-nesting terns and gulls, like the least tern and royal tern, black skimmers nest and roost in groups on barrier islands and beaches. They feed on fish and other marine life. Roosting and nesting on the sand and plunging into the water to fish, they are extremely vulnerable oil on the surface or washing ashore. [Audubon] Photo: Gary Kramer, FWS 

Snowy Plover: This bird and other shorebirds nest on the ground on barrier islands and beaches. They feed on small invertebrates along the beach or, in the case of oystercatchers, on oysters. They’re at risk if oil comes ashore or affects their food sources. [Audubon] Photo: BLM

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