Nearly 800 dead birds, sea turtles, dolphins, and other animals have been found in the Gulf and on its shores, according to federal authorities cited by the Associated Press. But the real story may be the rate at which animals are being affected by oil, which appears to have accelerated drastically in recent days.
Since opening six weeks ago—around the time the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, initiating the Gulf oil spill—the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Louisiana has treated 203 oiled birds, more than half of them in the last four days alone, USA Today reported.
Photograph by Win McNamee, Getty Images
Sticky Slog on the Gulf Coast
Hermit crabs struggle through patches of oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill on a barrier island off East Grand Terre Island, Louisiana, Sunday. The thickness of the crude oil afflicting some Louisiana beaches is apparently sufficient to stymie even much larger life-forms.
Coated in oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill, brown pelicans huddle in a cage at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Buras, Louisiana, Sunday.
Rescued birds are typically rubbed with vegetable or canola oil to break down the crude then washed with detergent—including inside their beaks and gullets, according to the research center's executive director, Jay Holcomb, speaking to USA Today.
Amid oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, a dead fish floats in Bay Long off Louisiana on Sunday.
Though oil-caked birds may be more tragically photogenic, the deaths of tiny fish could have a huge impact on Gulf habitats. Coastal marshes now inundated with oil from the BP spill serve as nurseries for much of the Gulf's marine life, so they're vital to the regional ecosystem and the U.S. seafood industry, Texas Tech University ecotoxicologist Ron Kendall told National Geographic News.
To make matters worse, oil in marshes is notoriously difficult to remove. "Once it gets in there," Kendall said on May 12, "we're not getting it out."
P.J. Hahn, director of Coastal Zone Management for Louisiana's Plaquemines Parrish, extracts a pelican from oil on Queen Bess Island on Saturday.
Even after cleaning, many birds die as a result of liver and kidney damage due to oil ingestion, according to German biologist Sylia Gaus, speaking to Spiegel Online. The birds use their beaks and tongues to clean toxic oil from their feathers, which are vital to keeping the animals warm and afloat.
Gaus said the "middle term" survival rate of cleaned birds is under 1 percent, and he therefore advocates that rescuers "kill, don't clean."
But Nils Warnock, a wildlife specialist with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at the University of California, Davis, said: "The public demands that something be done.
"It's heart-wrenching—you see this totally oil-covered animal, the only way you can see that they're alive is that their little eye blinks," Warnock told National Geographic News. "That kills me every time."
Photograph by Gerald Herbert, AP
Oiled Laughing Gull
A laughing gull languishes in surf tainted by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on East Grand Terre Island, Louisiana, on June 4.
Even as BP's new cap—attached late last week—is proving successful at funneling some of the leaking oil to waiting ships, U.S. Coast Guard chief Thad Allen told reporters Monday that it will take "a couple of months" to clean surface oil from the Gulf.
"Long-term issues of restoring environments and habitats," Admiral Allen added, "will be years."
Laden with oil from the BP spill, a brown pelican attempts takeoff on East Grand Terre Island, Louisiana, on June 4.
The oil threat is weighing especially heavily on Louisiana's state bird. "The brown pelican was just pulled off the endangered species list, and they are sitting on nest in the barrier islands … the first point of contact for oil," Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the Louisiana Coastal Initiative of the National Audubon Society, told National Geographic News in late April.