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July 15, 2010

 

 Wildlife rescue under way as oil gushes into Gulf

 Federal, state agencies work to ensure safe seafood supply


posted July 1, 2010

 

Sea turtles are one of many species threatened by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
 

As efforts to contain the largest oil spill in U.S. history continued with no immediate end in sight, the grim toll on wildlife along the Gulf Coast was slowly being tallied.

The government's wildlife impact assessment as of June 23 showed that 1,024 birds, 407 sea turtles, and 47 marine mammals had been found dead along the Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi coasts. Nearly 900 animals had been recovered alive, but less than a hundred had so far been returned to the wild. Not all the injuries and deaths were attributable to the spill, the report stated, and the causes of death would be determined at a later date.

The number of wildlife injured or killed as a consequence of the oil spill will surely rise, as the Deepwater Horizon well continued spewing into the Gulf of Mexico as of late June.

More than 360 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees were responding to the disaster, which was threatening 35 wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast. The agency was conducting aerial and ground surveys to assess the damage and was recovering oiled or injured wildlife to be cleaned, treated, and released in safe locations.

Dr. Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California-Davis, is leading the sea turtle and marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation response for the entire Gulf region. Operating out of the Houma, La., wildlife command post, Dr. Ziccardi says the Deepwater disaster is unlike any oil tanker or pipeline spill.

"Typically with other spills, you have an acute release, and oil hits the shoreline fairly quickly. You have animals affected in the first week, and you have an end date," he explained. "With this spill, because the release is still going on, because it's so far offshore, we're not exactly sure where the oil is going to head, what shorelines are going to be affected, so it's been very difficult to plan to do searches and collections, where to establish facilities, how many people we need on-site, and which species are going to be affected."

Noting that operations were expanding to the Florida Keys, Dr. Ziccardi asked, "Are we going to have oiled manatees?"

In addition to mitigating the spill's ecologic impact, federal and state government officials were taking steps to ensure seafood safety. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed thousands of square miles of fishing areas in the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, the agency was working with the Food and Drug Administration and affected states to assess whether seafood was tainted or contaminated to levels that pose a human health risk.

NOAA and FDA are also in the process of implementing a broad-scale seafood sampling plan. The plan involves sampling seafood from inside and outside the closure area and includes dockside and market-based sampling.

There's been no shortage of volunteers willing to lend a hand along the Gulf Coast. Faculty and students of the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine have been involved in the efforts to save oiled wildlife. The American Association of Zoo Veterinarians compiled a list totaling more than 600 veterinarians, veterinary students, biologists, zoologists, and others from the U.S. and Canada offering to assist. The list has been distributed to British Petroleum and government officials, according to Dr. Robert Hilsenroth, AAZV executive director.

A robust supply of manpower is an advantage, given the logistic challenges of dealing with this disaster, which some worry could spread as far as the Eastern Seaboard. "When you're talking hundreds if not thousands of miles of coastlines—all the different habitats, all the different species types, the potential for thousands of animals to be affected—it makes for a very large and very challenging response," Dr. Ziccardi explained.

For now, much of the oil has remained offshore, allowing time to formulate response plans and deal with the steady flow of rescued wildlife, he added.

Questions are circulating about the survival rate of oiled birds that are rehabilitated and returned to the wild and whether euthanasia would be the most humane option. Dr. Ziccardi supports euthanasia in cases where the chances a bird will not fully recover or will die in rehab are high. But, he said, "Oiling is not a death sentence for birds." Data compiled at UC-Davis show that long-term survival of birds after spills is much greater than is currently thought, he said.

"In fact, in spills we manage in California, we typically release between 50 and 75 percent of all live animals collected during spills," Dr. Ziccardi said.

There is less known on the long-term effects of oil exposure in sea turtles and marine animals, and Dr. Ziccardi anticipates the ecologic impact of the Deepwater spill along with the chemicals used to disperse the oil will be the focus of researchers for a long time to come.

Morris Animal Foundation awarded funds in June for the immediate study of the long-term effects of the spill on dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Fla. "This project has a great chance of documenting the effects of severe and chronic oil pollution in this species and many more animals affected by pollution found in the ocean," said MAF president, Dr. Patricia N. Olson.

The AVMA has posted information about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill at www.avma.org/news/deepwater_horizon_oil_spill.asp.