It’s been almost four years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion killed 11 people and spilled 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, but the effects of the disaster are still being felt by Gulf wildlife, according to a new report.
The report, published Tuesday by the National Wildlife Federation, looked at the health of 14 Gulf species, including bottlenose dolphins, blue crabs, coral, and multiple bird species and found that many of them are still struggling with the health effects of the spill. Scientists said on a press call Tuesday that though their report provides a good framework for the years after the spill, it was difficult to find adequate reports on many species’ health because much of the research hasn’t yet been published due to BP’s ongoing trials.
“No matter what BP and others are telling you, the oil is not gone,” Doug Inkley, NWF senior scientist, said on the call. Oil continues to wash up on the Gulf’s shores — as recently as April 2, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials found more than 350 tar balls on beaches in Escambia County, Florida.
Inkley said he isn’t surprised that species continue to suffer as a result of the spill, given that 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, some parts of the ecosystem in Prince William Sound still haven’t recovered.
Here are three of the animals still struggling with spill effects that NWF focused on in its report:
1. Bottlenose dolphins: The report notes that between April 2010 and March 2014, 900 bottlenose dolphins have been found dead or stranded in the northern Gulf. Dolphins’ health has also suffered since the spill, with dolphins that live in and around the oiled region showing signs of anemia and liver and lung disease, as well as an increased number of stillborns. But Inkley also said it was difficult to know exactly how many dolphins — and any other animal — had died as a result of the spill.
“We find a very small percentage — usually less that 10 percent — of the animals that die, and that’s going to be true of the Gulf oil spill as well,” he said. “So the impact is certainly much greater than we are visibly seeing by the stranded dolphins that we are able to find.”
2. Atlantic bluefin tuna: The Gulf of Mexico is one of only two places where Atlantic bluefin breed, and the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred during the species’ breeding season. One study noted in the report found that a chemical in the oil that spilled can lead to irregular heartbeats in yellowfin and bluefin tuna, which can lead to heart attack and death for a species whose populations have already plunged in the last several decades due to overfishing.
3. Sea turtles: Like bottlenose dolphins, strandings for the five species of sea turtle that live in the Gulf have remained above normal in the four years after the spill. Each year, about 500 dead sea turtles have been found in the region affected by the spill, and in 2013, about three-quarters of those strandings were the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, which spend their entire life cycle in the Gulf of Mexico. But it will probably take decades of monitoring to determine how the 2010 spill affected young turtles, due to how slowly they mature, said Pamela Plotkin, director of the Texas Sea Grant.
“For species like the loggerhead turtle that doesn’t reach maturity for maybe 20 or 30 years, we may not see the impact of what occurred in 2010 until 30 years from now,” Plotkin said on the press call.
The report notes that, depending on the result’s of BP’s civic trial, the oil giant could pay up to $14.08 billion into the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, which will create plans for Gulf ecosystem restoration. Last month, the U.S. government lifted the ban on BP seeking new oil leases in the Gulf, allowing the company to expand its drilling in the region.
BP issued a statement refuting the report’s claims, particularly about the spill’s relation to dolphin deaths, which the company says is still under investigation. “The National Wildlife Federation report is a piece of political advocacy – not science. It cherry picks reports to support the organization’s agenda, often ignoring caveats in those reports or mischaracterizing their findings,” the statement reads. “The report also conveniently overlooks information available from other independent scientific reports showing that the Gulf is undergoing a strong recovery. Just this week, a study published by Auburn University researchers found no evidence that the spill impacted young Red Snapper populations on reefs off the Alabama coast.”