With no new oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico since the BP/Deepwater Horizon well was successfully plugged in July, fewer oiled animals are being found, and talk now is turning to scaling back wildlife recovery operations.
"The actual amount of oiled animals we're seeing is decreasing," said Dr. Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California-Davis, in late August. Dr. Ziccardi has been heading up sea turtle and marine mammal recovery efforts in the Gulf since the drilling rig explosion in April.
"What we're finding out on the water is turtles very lightly oiled, if at all. We're cleaning those turtles on the water and then releasing them immediately," Dr. Ziccardi said, adding that veterinarians on the boats decide whether the turtles can be released right away or need further attention.
Government reports showed fewer oiled animals were being collected along the coasts of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi in September. Still, the spill's impact on area wildlife is striking. As of Sept. 8, a total of 5,761 dead birds had been collected, along with 567 dead sea turtles and 86 dead marine mammals, since the government began tracking the die-off.
Of the 2,062 birds collected alive, more than half had been released, and nearly half of the 525 sea turtles had been returned to the wild. The turtles are being released far from the spill, off the southwest coast of Florida, because of uncertainty about how much oil actually remains underwater. Submerged oil is less of a concern with birds, Dr. Ziccardi explained, since they dwell mostly in marsh areas away from the oil.
State and federal wildlife officials in late August suspended operations to relocate sea turtle nests along beaches in northwest Florida and Alabama. The decision was made after surveys revealed an abundance of unsoiled Sargassum—a type of seaweed that is the main habitat for turtle hatchlings.
The relocation plan was unprecedented in scope with 278 nests moved and more than 14,000 sea turtle hatchlings involved.
"The prospect of hatchlings emerging onto a heavily oiled beach or entering a near-shore oil slick was unacceptable," said Rodney Barreto, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman. "Fortunately, conditions have improved, and we can now begin to allow the nests to hatch naturally."
Although plans for deactivating oiled wildlife operations are in the early stages of development, Dr. Ziccardi says the hotline to notify authorities when an oiled animal is found will remain operational after recovery teams have been withdrawn. And many animals will continue in rehabilitation in the months ahead. "We're at a point now where we hoped to be several months ago," he said.
Attention is turning toward long-term monitoring of the oil's effects on the Gulf Coast ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are putting together a plan to find out what those impacts are. One of the questions researchers will try to answer is whether oil and surfactants used to disperse the oil is ingested by fish populations in high enough concentrations to be harmful to dolphins, turtles, and other animals higher up in the food chain.
"The potential for long-term impacts to the ecosystem is definitely present," Dr. Ziccardi said. "I do think we're going to see effects, especially to the higher vertebrates, for a long time to come."