Two Years Later, Dolphins Dying at Unprecedented Rates

Dolphins are dying in unprecedented numbers
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Today marks two years since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and ultimately sending more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the start of the spill, more than 500 dolphins have been found stranded in the oil spill zone—four times the historical average. April is the 26th consecutive month with above-average strandings, with higher mortality rates in 2011 than in 2010.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently called the length and severity of the current rash of dolphin strandings “unprecedented.”

As part of its effort to determine the cause of the dolphin strandings, NOAA did an in-depth study of dolphins in Barataria Bay, an area that was heavily oiled during the BP oil spill. The researchers found that many of the animals were underweight, anemic, had low hormone levels, low blood sugar, and some had signs of liver damage. These symptoms are similar to those seen in other mammals exposed to oil.

As a top-level predator, the poor health of dolphins in the most heavily oiled areas suggests possible ecosystem-wide effects of the oil.  Dolphins can inhale oil vapors, ingest oil when feeding, absorb it through their skin or eat contaminated fish.

The Gulf of Mexico is in dire need of restoration. NOAA estimates that as many as 450 miles of shoreline remain affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. But even before the oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico was a degraded ecosystem, affected by wetlands loss, overfishing, nutrient run-off, and other problems.

The impacts of the Gulf oil disaster will be unfolding for years, if not decades. The initial disaster response focused on removing oil, with little action taken to address the long-term wetlands habitat degradation exacerbated by the oil disaster.

BP and the other companies responsible for the Gulf oil disaster will rightly pay billions in penalties for their flagrant violations of the Clean Water Act. But unless Congress takes action, money from these fines could end up spent on unrelated programs.

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Much of the material in this post comes from A Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands Two Years Into the Gulf Oil Disaster.