Sheila McNulty What cannot be seen in oily Gulf worries federal wildlife experts

A Brown Pelican prepares to enter the water at the Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge near St. Petersburg May 23, 2010. The bird was rescued and cleaned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after being found oiled near Louisiana's coast. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen. The pictures of oil-soaked marshes, birds and turtles are starting to emerge from the Gulf of Mexico. But federal wildlife experts say it is what cannot be seen that is often the most worrying. Many animals that die from oil spills are never recovered; they are scavenged or wash up in locations that people do not normally go. Marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins and manatees, are especially hard to track as they drift down in the waters and are eaten by predators.

The risk of long term, chronic exposure is a worry, too. Ralph Morgenweck, US Fish and Wildlife Service senior science advisor and liaison officer at the Unified Area Command:

A lot of these impacts are more subtle than oil on the outside of an animal… We are in a very early phase of understanding the science here.

While the experts say previous spills can be indicative of what is to come, having an oil leak at 5,000 feet under the ocean adds a whole new dimension to those models. Besides, they agree, each oil spill is different, depending on where they are, the currents, tides, weather patterns, and so on.

In this spill, the impact of dispersants on wildlife is also an unknown, given that they are being injected so far down in the ocean. Barbara Schroeder, National Sea Turtle Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, says she and others are concerned about the effects on the food web, noting that they do not know what the longterm effects of that will be. That led Roger Helm, US Fish and Wildlife Service’s chief of environmental quality, to describe it as “a giant experiment”.

And the takeaways will be years in coming. But Representative Edward J Markey, the Democrat, sent a letter May 21 to the companies responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf, urging the creation of an independent fund for outside scientists and researchers. This fund would help independent, objective scientists develop solutions to halt the flow of oil, monitor the spill and assess the ecological impacts on the Gulf.

BP responded with a commitment of up to $500m. From the announcement, comments from Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive:

BP has made a commitment to doing everything we can to lessen the impact of this tragic incident on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast. We must make every effort to understand that impact. This will be a key part of the process of restoration, and for improving the industry response capability for the future. There is an urgent need to ensure that the scientific community has access to the samples and the raw data it needs to begin this work.

And so the long-term studies begin.

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